Exploring Judaism’s deep connection with life through three different interpretations of the Torah phrase, “and you shall live by them”.
Did you ever notice Judaism’s deep connection with life? It goes to our salutation. Who hasn’t raised a toast l’chaim – “to life”?
The value for life is so deeply ingrained in the Jewish psyche. This is rooted in the Torah, and so, in this week’s portion, we read: “And you shall keep my statutes and my laws which a person shall do and live by them.”
These three words in the phrase “and you shall live by them” are embedded with so much meaning. What does the Torah mean when it says we shall live by keeping the Torah’s laws and statutes?
I would like to share three unique answers with you, each one enriching our understanding of what life is all about and what it means to truly live.
Let’s begin with a very literal understanding of the concept of life. Blood pumping through our veins and neurons firing from our brains. A fundamental Torah principle is pikuach nefesh – the idea that almost all of the commandments are suspended in order to save a life. The Talmud (Yoma 85b) derives this principle from our verse: “And you shall live by them.” The mitzvot are here for us to live by – not, Heaven forbid, to die by. That is what the verse is clarifying for us.
This has far-reaching implications. In any situation in which a person’s life is even possibly in danger (within reason), a person is not only permitted to transgress a Torah commandment, that person is, in fact, obligated to do so, if it would alleviate the danger. For example, if a person becomes sick on Shabbat, and there is reasonable concern that his/her life may be in danger, then one is obligated to do what would otherwise be forbidden on Shabbat in order to save his/her life – whether it’s phoning a paramedic, driving to the ER or operating medical equipment. This applies even in a situation where transgressing the commandment would lead only to a very limited extension of life – be it a minute, or even a nanosecond. In Judaism, every moment of every life is precious and sacred. As the Talmud puts it, “momentary life is called life”.
The Ramban takes our understanding of living by Hashem’s laws and statutes further. He explains the laws and statutes that we shall live by are the Mishpatim, the civil laws of the Torah which govern our interactions with each other, allowing us to thrive in society by creating a framework for people to interact with one another ethically and decently, with compassion and kindness. From the laws of personal damages and property rights, the detailed directives on court systems and criminal justice, to the obligations of caring for others, personal integrity and honesty – the Mishpatim foster peace and stability, and that is why the verse explains “we shall live by them”.
The Ibn Ezra takes this understanding further. He says the laws and statutes that we shall live by are not just the Mishpatim, but rather all the mitzvot of the Torah, which, as a whole, help us live life to the fullest. Often, someone may see the mitzvot as the ticket into the next world. By telling us we shall live by them, the Torah is giving us a set of rules that will help us get the maximum out of our day-to-day lives in this world. (Daas Torah Bamidbar p84-86) It is a framework for full engagement and involvement in the physical experiences of this world. In fact, the Talmud (Nedarim 10a) describes as a “sinner” a person who, going beyond the laws of the Torah and on the basis of personal piety, afflicts himself with physical deprivation.
This is such a fundamental principle in our understanding of the mitzvot. Based on this verse, Rav Yerucham Levovitz makes the bold claim that if we find that the mitzvot dull our ability to enjoy life, we are simply doing them wrong, as it says that G-d holds us accountable “because you did serve the L-rd your G-d with joy”. (Devarim 28:47) Done right, the mitzvot have the power to infuse every moment of our lives with vivid colour. Take Shabbat, for example: anyone who views Shabbat as a day of restrictions and deprivation has missed the point. Shabbat is the day of the week that we truly start living. It’s a day freed from the distractions, demands and responsibilities that fill our lives. It’s a blissful day of tranquillity and connection to G-d, the people in our lives and ourselves. This is what the verse means by living by them – through the laws and statutes we really live life to the fullest, finding joy and fulfilment in this world in the best possible way.
But, why is it specifically the Torah empowers us to live life to the fullest? One answer is that the Torah is the blueprint of the universe, as the Midrash says: “G-d looked into the Torah and created His world.” This means that G-d designed the world using the principles of the Torah. The world is in complete harmony with the Torah because it is the world’s genetic code. So, to live a Torah life is to live in harmony with the spiritual and moral purpose and design of who we are and how we were created. This means the mitzvot are in harmony with our lives and the world in which we live. This touches on everything; but one important aspect of this harmony is that the Torah nurtures our souls. The soul was created to need a life of meaning and good deeds, and a connection to G-d. Physical pleasures alone cannot satisfy a person completely. Without the spiritual connection of the Torah, there will always be an emptiness inside a person. The Vilna Gaon puts it best. He compares the pursuit of materialism to drinking salt water. The more one drinks, the thirstier one becomes.
Rashi explores a third dimension of what the verse means when it instructs us to live by them. He explains that this living refers to eternal life in the World to Come.
One of the deepest yearnings of the soul is to achieve legacy and immortality; time is a dimension of the physical world, but the soul seeks to transcend it. People express this desire in different ways. They build edifices in the physical world – empires of fame and fortune, even actual physical monuments of clay and stone – all in the hope of living on forever. But, ultimately, any approach that seeks immortality in the temporal world is doomed to fail. What we learn from the Rashi on this verse is that immortality – true, enduring life – is only experienced in the next world, and that the gateway to that world lies through the mitzvot we do in this world. That is how we live by them.
As the Mishna says: “A moment of repentance and good deeds in this world is worth more than an entire lifetime in the World to Come.” We can only truly fulfil the mitzvot in this physical world, where there is free will. G-d has placed us in this world with an opportunity to achieve immortality in the next. Every mitzvah that we perform, every expression of the Divine will that we carry out, is forever connected to our souls and taken with us. We leave behind all of our possessions and physical things and only take with us our mitzvot. Through Torah, we achieve immortality. We live by them in the truest, most eternal sense of living.
Three small words – live by them – are infused with so much depth and meaning. Whether it’s the enormous value we place on the tiniest moment of physical life, the tremendous sense of fulfilment and enjoyment we get in this world from Torah mitzvot or the eternal legacy they afford us in the World to Come, the Torah is truly a tree of life for those who grasp it. (Mishlei 3:18)