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Im B’chukosai Seileichu


IN THIS week’s Torah portion, G-d’s promise to the Jews of material reward for living in accordance with the Torah begins with the passage (Leviticus 26:3), “If you will walk in [the ways of] My chukos.” The Hebrew word chukos is derived from the term for “engraving”; it is used here to mean “statutes,” as if to say, “laws that are eternal and unchanging, as if engraved in stone.”

Each of the three Hebrew words that make up this phrase (im b’chukosai seileichu; if you-will-walk in-My-graven-statutes) has an unusual feature about it, something which requires explanation:

1) Our Rabbis have taught (Avodah Zara 5a) that the Hebrew word for “if,” as used here, implies supplication. Rather than a simple statement (If you will walk in My statutes … [then you will be rewarded]), the verse may be understood as a supplication, as it were, on the part of G-d: “If only you would walk in the ways of My statutes”! What is the great benefit of “walking in G-d’s statutes” that could prompt Him, so to speak, to exclaim, “if only…”?

2) How does the term chukos, in the sense of “engraved things” apply to the Torah and mitzvos? What does it mean to “walk in the way of that which is engraved”?

3) What does “walking” have to do with it, anyway? To be sure, there is an expression, “walk in the way of such and such,” which has a fairly obvious meaning, but the Torah does not actually use that expression here. What the verse literally says is “walk in My statutes,” which carries the connotation, “walk, by means of My statutes”; that is, through the statutes, one can walk. What does that mean?

All this may be understood in terms of an analogy between letters of the alphabet and a person’s thought processes.

We find two kinds of letters in the Torah: the letters used in the Tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written — about which we are told (Exodus 32:16), “the writing was the writing of G-d, engraved upon the Tablets” — and the ordinary, ink-on-parchment letters of the rest of the Torah. A characteristic of engraved letters, such as those of the Tablets, is that they are not separate entities unto themselves; they have no substance, they are a part of the very stone on which they are engraved. Written letters, by contrast — such as the letters of ink on parchment used throughout the rest of the Torah — do have substance of their own. They aren’t part of the parchment; they are separate letters, formed of ink. And, in accordance with the statement of the Zohar (III, 73a) that G-d, the Torah and the Jews are intrinsically bound up with one another — everything in the Torah is reflected in the Jews as well. The topic under discussion is no exception: the qualities of engraved and written letters discussed above may also be expressed in human terms.

The explanation of all this is in accordance with the verse (Zecharia 3:7), “and I [G-d] will make you mahlchim (‘goers,’ walkers) among these omdim (standers, ‘stationary ones’).” The expression “goers” refers to the souls of the Jewish people, while “stationery ones” refers to the angels. The reason these terms are used is due to a fact worth reflecting on: although in many respects, angels can see G-dliness more clearly than we can (at least, in this earthly life), fundamentally, souls are superior to angels.

G-d created the universe and all its contents by means of the ten utterances detailed in Genesis chapter 1 (“Let there be light,” and so on); we likewise read (Psalms 33:6), “By the word of G-d were the heavens created, and by the breath of His mouth, all their hosts.” Chassidic philosophy explains that, while G-d has, of course, no body and did not literally “utter” those commands, the metaphor of G-d’s “speech” is intended to convey the manner in which G-d expresses His will. When a person speaks, he or she expresses what had previously existed only in their thoughts, making those thoughts known to others. In doing so, however, they “fix” the idea in a set form: once the concept has been formulated into words and verbalized, it cannot be changed, because those particular letters and words express that precise idea and no other. If the person wants to add to what they have said, they need to say something else, expressing some additional point not contained in what they had said earlier. By contrast, one’s thoughts are fluid and capable of containing an idea and all its ramifications; ideas can even change and grow and develop within one’s thoughts – something that does not apply to the spoken word.

Furthermore, once spoken, the words are “out there”: they are separate from the person who said them, and exist – for the person who heard them, or on the page on which they are printed – in their own right. This is not so, of course, with respect to one’s thoughts, which are not separate from the thinker, but are part and parcel of that person him- or herself. Finally, speech is a relatively superficial thing; one can talk and talk and talk some more and not become “spent,” while serious thought is a real effort, it takes more out of a person.

In telling us that G-d created everything in the universe by “speaking,” the Torah teaches that anything and everything that exists is nothing more than a relatively “superficial” manifestation of G-d’s will, as speech is a superficial and external manifestation of a person. Created entities are not of G-d’s very “Self,” as it were, any more than (indeed, infinitely less than) a single spoken word remains a “part” of the speaker. The Jewish soul, though, is unique, in that it alone of all creation stems from a level of G-dliness so sublime as to be considered literally a “part” of G-d Himself. It is to this that the Midrash and Kabbalah refer in teaching that (B’reishis Rabba, beginning of chapter 1; Tikkunei Zohar, end of tikkun 6) “Israel arose in [the Divine] thought first.”

(The foregoing analyzes the distinction between speech and thought in terms of the “inner” aspect of speech, i.e., its content or meaning. Compare this idea with the discussion at the beginning of the synopsis of the discourse Ki Bayom Hazeh Y’chaper (#1) on the Torah portion Acharei Mos, in which a similar distinction is made with respect to the more superficial aspect of speech, i.e., the physical breath from which it is formed. The contrast there is between the breath of ordinary speech and the deeper, more strenuous breath of vigorous blowing. In both respects, the Jewish soul is seen to be superior to the rest of creation, created by G-d’s “speech,” as mentioned at the beginning of the second chapter of Tanya.)

More relevant for present purposes is the fact that the “fixed” aspect of speech – that once a thought has been expressed verbally it is unchanging – represents the spiritual dynamics of G-d’s creation of the universe. It is taught elsewhere (see Sha’ar HaYichud V’haEmunah) that the Divine creative energy invested by G-d within the original ten utterances is what brought the world into being and sustains its continued existence. Although the individual entities of the world, e.g., stones, are not specifically named in the ten utterances (nowhere does it say, “Let there be stones”), the rules of Hebrew grammar – which are rooted in the deepest mystical concepts – allow for the permutation and substitution of letters in such a way that the Hebrew letters of the ten utterances can be manipulated to yield the name of any given thing. The spiritual life-force of a stone is thus transmitted to it by the specific combination of Hebrew letters which form the word “stone” (even), a combination derived from the letters of the original ten utterances. It is as though each item in creation exists by virtue of a unique code, specific to itself, which forms its Hebrew name and is derived from the ten utterances.

This yields another insight into the metaphor of G-d’s “speech.” Just as a person who puts a thought into words thereby “freezes” that thought, setting it into a given form that does not change, so it is with the created beings of the universe: each is formed of a fixed combination of Divine, energizing letters, and therefore cannot change or develop. It is what it is. By contrast, the Jewish soul, which “arose in G-d’s thought” and not speech, is fluid, in the sense that, like a person’s thoughts, it can grow and develop spiritually.

Note that within thought itself, we can identify two levels. On one level, thought, like speech, is comprised of letters and words, and one’s spoken words are nothing more than a manifestation of these thoughts. This level of thought is referred to as machshava tatah, “lower-order thought.” However, there is a deeper level of thought that cannot be expressed in words; this is thought as it is bound up with the living intellect itself. This machshava ilah, “higher-order thought,” is the level which is not fixed in a set form but rather, is constantly flowing, changing, emerging – the proverbial “stream of consciousness.” The Jewish soul stems from this higher-order Divine “thought,” metaphorically speaking, as indicated by the wording, the Jews arose in G-d’s thought.

We are now in a position to appreciate why angels are called “stationary,” while souls are referred to as “goers.” Since the angels, like everything else, were created “by the breath of [G-d’s] mouth,” i.e., by the level we have been referring to as G-d’s “speech,” they cannot change their character or develop spiritually. Angels like the archangel Michael, which G-d created for the sole purpose of serving Him with love, possess a fixed degree of love for G-d; angels like the archangel Gabriel, whose function is to serve G-d with fear, posses a fixed level of fear. Each has their particular role to play, and they play it with eternal constancy. They are thus called “stationary.” The Jews, however, are superior in that we are capable of spiritual growth and development. A person who starts out with a certain level of love and fear of G-d is not limited to that level; on the contrary, not only can they, but they are expected to, work at nurturing those emotions and developing them even further. The Jews are therefore called “goers,” or more literally, “walkers.”

This concept is beautifully alluded to by the following two verses. Genesis 2:10 states, “a river flows from Eden to water the garden.” “Eden” refers to the very source of the spiritual level allegorically compared to G-d’s “intellect,” the point at which the intellect (at its very highest level, that known as chochma) is bound up with the essence of the Thinker Himself. The “river” that flows forth from Eden is the “steam of consciousness” we have been discussing: the level of thought that is not static and set, but is connected with the intellect itself and flows constantly like a rushing spring or a river. But G-d’s “thought” and the lofty spiritual level it represents is beyond our mortal grasp, so G-d, in His love for us, “distilled” it and brought it down to earth for us; He expressed it on our level in a “fixed” form that can be reduced to words. These “words of G-d” are the written form of the Torah, which contains 53 individual s’darim, or weekly Torah portions. By the grammatical rule of g’matria, or numerical equivalence, the number 53 can be expressed as the Hebrew letters that spell the word for “garden,” gan. This first verse, “a river flows from Eden to water the garden,” thus mystically alludes to the higher-order level of G-d’s “thought” explained above – the “river” – which is itself the source of the written form of the Torah.

Another verse, Joshua 24:2, states, “your forefathers dwelt of old beyond the river.” This indicates that the Jewish people has its spiritual roots even “beyond” the spiritual level referred to as the “river.” Instead, the Jews “arose in G-d’s thought.” For, while G-d’s thought itself is the flowing river, the level alluded to by “arose” in thought is the point at which the thought actually emerges from the Thinker Himself. We Jews are bound up with that spiritual level that is literally united with G-d, a level which is even “beyond the river.” We are therefore unlimited in our capacity as “goers”: we can always develop increased, and more intense, levels of love and fear of G-d.

Now, the most suitable place and time for each person to “walk” or “go” – to develop and grow his or her love and fear of G-d – is during prayer. Specifically, our prayers are structured in such a way that by contemplating the verses and themes therein, which revolve around G-d’s greatness, how awesome He is, and how relatively insignificant everything else is by comparison, we arouse within ourselves the emotions of, respectively, love of G-d, fear or awe of Him, and compassion on our own souls, so far from our lofty source. These three emotions are each identified with one of our Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob: Abraham with love, Isaac with fear, and Jacob with compassion. That is the significance of “your forefathers dwelt of old beyond the river”: in order to reach and connect with our spiritual source “beyond the river,” we must engage in the type of worship alluded to by “your forefathers.” We must, in other words, use our time at prayer, by deep reflection on the meaning of what we are saying, to arouse compassion on our souls and “grow” our love and fear of G-d.

This, then, is why it is appropriate that G-d Himself should say of us, “If only you would walk….” In His love and concern for us, G-d is pleading with us, so to speak, “if only you would take the above ideas to heart! If only the direction in which you are going, the way in which you walk, the areas in which you seek to grow and develop, were ‘in My statutes,’ i.e., the way of the Torah and of holiness! If only you appreciated the true value of this, and were content not to divert your efforts to develop in other, worthless ways.”

And we can now appreciate as well the symbolism of engraved versus written letters, the reason why the Hebrew word for the “statutes” we are urged to walk in is derived from the word for engraving. As noted above, engraved letters possess no independent existence, but are one and the same with the stone itself; while letters of ink are indeed separate entities. Written or spoken letters, and even, to a degree, that “lower-order” thought in which the words of thought are the source of the spoken word, are all static. As applied to G-d, allegorically speaking, they symbolize manifestations of G-dliness in some fixed form, for the benefit of created entities who cannot relate to G-d’s very “Self.” It is only G-d’s “Self,” as it were, which is not fixed, but by definition is utterly unlimited and unconstrained. At this sublime level, the “letters” of G-d’s revelation possess no existence of their own, but are a function of G-d Himself, like engraved letters. This is the spiritual level of the mitzvos of the Torah, the level we tap into by “walking in their ways”: it is aptly called “graven statutes,” for this level is bound up with G-d Himself.

And that is the meaning of “you will walk in My statutes,” as if to say, “you will walk, by means of my statutes.” For indeed, the only way to achieve “motion,” the only way one can be a “goer” or “walker,” is by drawing down upon oneself that spiritual level which is itself “fluid” and which comes from observing G-d’s “engraved” statutes, His chukos.

However – we live in a physical world, and it is difficult to preserve the spiritual mindset necessary to walk in the way of G-d. For this reason, the verse continues, “If you will walk in My statutes and observe My mitzvos….” For the G-dly inspiration that comes to a person through performance of mitzvos is similar to wine, in that, as the Talmud teaches (Eruvin 65a), “when wine enters [a person, their] secret comes out.” The “secret” buried deep within the heart of every Jew is the natural love for G-d which can be developed and fanned into a roaring flame. This love motivates one to pursue the path of G-d, to seek the level of engraved letters and its total union with G-d.

Yet fine wine requires proper preservation. The “wine” which is the spirituality of the Torah is the same; its “preservative” is mitzvah-performance. One doesn’t get the spiritual benefit and inspiration of the Torah just by sitting around; one must actively perform mitzvos in order to experience the motivation to “walk” and grow in the way of G-d. The Hebrew word for “observe” in the phrase in our verse, “and observe My mitzvos” can also be translated “preserve.” That is to say, “My mitzvos preserve the wine of Torah, that inspiration that motivates you to ‘walk’ in My engraved statutes.”

Lo Tov Heyos HaAdam Levado
Mayim Rabim Lo Yuchlu L'Chabos
B'Etzem HaYom Hazeh Nimol Avrohom
Erda Na
Chayei Sara
V'Avraham Zakein Ba Bayamim
Vayachp'ru Avdei Yitzchok
Vayashkeim Lavan Baboker
Vayeavek Ish Imo
VeHinei Anachnu M'Almim Alumim
Ner Chanukah Mitzvah L'Hanicha
Vayigash Eilav Yehudah
Chachlili Einayim Miyayin