by Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb
Bechukotai (Leviticus 26:3-27:34).
This week’s parsha, Bechukotai, begins: “If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant your rains in their season…”
That is the standard translation of this opening verse. But a more literal translation would begin not, “If you follow My laws,” but rather, “If you walk in My laws.” Most translators understandably choose the word “follow” over the literal “walk” in this context.
But the Midrash takes a different approach. It retains the literal “walk,” and links it to the phrase in Psalms 119:59 which reads, “I have considered my ways, and have turned my steps to Your decrees.” After linking the verse in our Torah portion with this verse from Psalms, the Midrash continues, putting these words into the mouth of King David: “Master of the universe, each and every day I would decide to go to such and such a place, or to such and such a dwelling, but my feet would bring me to synagogues and study halls, as it is written: ‘I have turned my steps to Your decrees.’”
Long before this Midrash was composed, but long after the life of King David, the rabbinic sage Hillel is recorded by the Talmud to have said, “To the place which I love, that is where my feet guide me” (Sukkah 53a).
The lesson is clear. Our unconscious knows our authentic inner preferences very well. So much so that, no matter what our conscious plans are, our feet take us to where we really want to be.
This Midrash understands the opening phrase of our parsha, “If you walk in my laws,” as indicating the Torah’s desire that we internalize God’s laws thoroughly so that they become our major purpose in life. Even if we initially define our life’s journey in terms of very different goals, God’s laws will hopefully become our ultimate destination.
There are numerous other ways suggested by commentaries throughout the ages to understand the literal phrase, “If you walk in my ways.” Indeed, Rabbi Chaim ibn Atar, the great 18th century author of Ohr HaChaim, enumerates no less than 42 explanations of the phrase.
Several of his explanations, while not identical to that of our Midrash, are consistent with it and help us understand it more deeply.
For example, he suggests that by using the verb “walk,” the Torah is suggesting to us that it is sometimes important in religious life to leave one’s familiar environment. One must “walk,” embark on a journey to some distant place, in order to fully realize his or her religious mission. It is hard to be innovative, it is hard to change, in the presence of people who have known us all of our lives.
Ohr HaChaim also leaves us with the following profound insight, which the author bases upon a passage in the sourcebook of the Kabbalah, the Zohar:
“Animals do not change their nature. They are not ‘walkers.’ But humans are ‘walkers.’ We are always changing our habits, ‘walking away’ from base conduct to noble conduct, and from lower levels of behavior to higher ones. ‘Walking,’ progressing, is our very essence. ‘Walking’ distinguishes us from the rest of God’s creatures.”
The phrase “to walk” is thus a powerful metaphor for who we are. No wonder, then, that this final portion of the Book of Leviticus begins with such a choice of words.
All of life is a journey, and despite our intentions, we somehow arrive at Bechukotai, “My laws,” so that we end our journey through this third book of the Bible with these words:
“These are the commandments that the Lord gave Moses for the people of Israel on Mount Sinai.”
Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is the Executive Vice President, Emeritus of the Orthodox Union. His book, “Person in the Parasha: Discovering the Human Element in the Weekly Torah Portion” (OU Press and Maggid Books), contains a compilation of Rabbi Weinreb’s weekly Person in the Parsha column. For more information, visit ou.org.