Probing Beneath the Surface (Edited Transcript)
This week’s parsha, Bechukotai, begins with the phrase Im bechukotai telechu, “if you will walk in My statutes.” The parsha talks about the consequences of good and evil and the principle of reward and punishment for good deeds and bad deeds, respectively.
If you look in a Chumash, you will see various cantillation symbols above and below the text, what is known in Yiddish as trop. You can hear the ba’al korei, the person who reads the Torah in shul, reading the text in a certain tune. The trop not only indicates the tune and intonation but it also functions as punctuation marks helping us read the verses correctly.
One of these symbols is a zakef katan, indicated by two vertically aligned dots above the text and functioning as a soft pause, like a comma. Another is called an etnachta, which looks like an upside down wishbone under the text and indicates a strong pause, like a semicolon. We would expect the opening phrase of our portion to be punctuated with a soft pause, a zakef katan, indicating that the phrase is connected to what follows – “If you will walk in My statutes, and keep all of My commandments, I will provide rain at the right time…” etc. However, the trop that appears under the last word of this phrase, telechu, is actually a strong pause, an etnachta – semicolon. This trop seems to indicate that this phrase stands on its own, as a separate idea from the rest of the text that follows. How do we understand this phrase as independent?
Hebrew language is called Lashon HaKodesh, the holy tongue. In contrast to all other languages which were created by human beings and social conventions, Hebrew is unique in that it was created by Hashem Himself; every word contains within it profound wisdom. If we analyse the deeper meaning of each of these three words, Im bechukotai telechu, we will better understand how this phrase stands independently.
The origin of the Hebrew word chok
In Hebrew we have many words for G-d’s commandments. We are most familiar with the term mitzvot but in this week’s portion we find the word chukim, statutes. Rav Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenberg, one of the great commentators and Hebrew language analysts in 19th-century Germany, cites a number of sources from the Talmud that say that the word chok in the Chumash refers to the Torah she’b’al peh, the Oral Law which comes to explain the Written Law, both of which were given to us by G-d at Mount Sinai.
The Hebrew word chok comes from the Hebrew word cheyk, which means inside. The Oral Torah comes to explain the inside, the depth, of the Written Torah. Although the Written Law can be understood on a surface level, there is so much more depth to it which the Oral Torah explains, giving us the deeper meaning behind everything in the Torah. Even how we read the Written Law comes from the Oral Law: where to put the accent and how to pronounce the letters. Thus, one cannot even look at the Chumash and understand the Written Law without its companion – the Talmud. The two function as one system of law. The Oral Law gives us the chok, the inside of it, the deeper meaning. This also explains the relationship between the word chok and the Hebrew word lachakok, which means to engrave, to dig deep down and get to the bottom of things.
Walking in G-d’s statutes
Taking this one step further, Rav Mecklenberg asks what the verse means when it says “If you will walk in My statutes”; what does it mean to “walk” in G-d’s statutes? The word Torah is related to the word latur, which means to go on a journey of discovery. We find this word used when Moses sent the spies to check out the Land of Israel; it says latur et ha’aretz “to spy out the land.” They walked through the land on a journey of discovery. Latur and the word Torah are derived from the same root because learning Torah is a quest, a journey of discovery to unearth the wisdom of Hashem.
This relates to the Talmudic statement which Rashi brings at the beginning of our parsha which says that one should put effort into learning Torah. Torah is not something that one acquires just by reading a book and relaxing. Effort must be exerted; it is a journey of discovery, of finding new ideas and delving into the depths of G-d’s wisdom and seeing things from His perspective. A surface view is insufficient; we must burrow deep into it and discover, and therefore it requires effort.
Why G-d gave us the commandments
The opening phrase of our portion begins with the word im, which we usually translate as “if” – “If you will walk in My statutes.” Backing his claim with Talmudic sources, Rav Mecklenberg says that the correct translation here of im is “if only you will walk in My statutes,” indicating Hashem’s desire that Hashem wants this from us.
Rav Mecklenberg quotes a beautiful passage from the Talmud which explains that the reason Hashem has given us all of the mitzvot is because He loves us and wants what is best for us. He is not trying to make our lives more difficult or complicated; He just wants us to live the best possible life that we can, and His commandments enable us to do so. Sometimes a parent tells a child to do something and the child doesn’t want to do it. Sometimes the child does not understand why the parent wants them to do something or does not permit them to do something, but the parent knows better than the child and is only doing so out of love. So too Hashem, the ultimate parent, commands us with mitzvot out of love.
Therefore, says Rav Mecklenberg, the correct translation of this opening phrase Im bechukotai telechu is “If only you will walk in My statutes.” Hashem is saying, I wish that you will just walk in My laws, walk in them on a journey of discovery and unearth all the wisdom that lies beneath the surface. He is saying, immerse yourself in it. Dig deep inside the wellsprings of the Torah which will open your eyes and inspire you.
We can now understand why the opening phrase Im bechukotai telechu is punctuated with the etnachta, the semicolon. Hashem’s language and His Torah have incredible depth. These three words are not merely introducing the rest of the text, but contain worlds of insight within them, and that is why they are punctuated to be read as an independent statement.
The falsity of the evil inclination
Another idea which is related to the word chok, to engrave or dig down, comes from the Dubna Maggid, a great sage from a few hundred years ago. The Dubna Maggid quotes a passage from the Talmud which says that the Torah is like a stone and the yetzer hara, the evil inclination, is also like a stone. What does this mean, and how can they both be like stone?
The Dubna Maggid had a unique approach of using parables to explain concepts more clearly. He gives the following analogy: say you have a fraudster, a crook who wants to sell false jewellery. He takes stones and colours them in a certain way to make them appear like precious stones – rubies, sapphires and diamonds. A fool comes along and sees the stones for sale. He thinks the price is a good bargain and he buys them. He is very excited with his purchase and runs to the wise person to show him what he has bought. By the time he gets to the house of the wise person it is nightfall. The wise person says he cannot look at the stones in the dark and so they must wait till the morning. In the morning they take out the stones and look at them in the clear light of day, and in bright sunlight they can see that the stones are fake. The colouring is starting to fade, they can see right through them. Then they put them under hot water and the stones actually melt.
The stones in the parable represent the yetzer hara, the evil inclination, the part of us that tries to get us to do bad in the world. G-d created us with an evil inclination so that we can have free choice and get rewarded for our good deeds. Every one of us has the choice to do good or evil. Sometimes the yetzer hara makes evil deeds appear like precious stones. We are enticed by these stones and start to view things from an unclear perspective, confusing right and wrong and making unwise decisions. How are we to avoid being fooled?
Torah must be engraved upon us
The Dubna Maggid quotes a passage from the Talmud which says that if the evil inclination comes to entice you to sin, drag him into the Beit HaMidrash, the house of learning, and then it will have no power over you. The Dubna Maggid explains that the Torah is a stone which is strong and immovable, much more powerful than the false stones of the evil inclination. The Torah has the strength to engrave itself upon us and show us the right path.
The stones of the yetzer hara are the illusions and fantasies we sometimes sell to ourselves. We know we are doing wrong but we are fooled by the illusion; the stones look precious. The only way to get rid of these illusions is to look at them in the clear light of day, the light of Hashem’s Torah. We must pull the yetzer hara into the Beit HaMidrash, into the house of study, and let the light of Torah shine onto these illusions and expose them for the frauds they are.
Learning Torah is of the utmost importance. In fact, the Talmud says it is the most important of all the mitzvot because it leads to action. Only when we learn Torah can we get our priorities straight and look at things in the clear light of Hashem’s wisdom. In the warmth of those sun rays all the illusions melt away and we can see the world for what it is, seeing what is right and what is wrong, and living our life in accordance with Hashem’s will.
This is the meaning of the Talmud’s statement that the evil inclination is like stone. It is like the stones which appear to be precious but are actually worthless; under the light and in the heat they melt away and there is nothing really there. The Torah, on the other hand, is a stone which is strong and can engrave itself on a person’s heart – from the word chok, to engrave. It is a source of strength for us, dispelling all the illusions and keeping us on the correct path.
Be strong, be strong and let us take strength
This Shabbos we will be finishing the third book of the Chumash. Whenever we finish a book of the Five Books in shul, we say at the end of the Torah reading Chazak chazak venitchazeik “be strong, be strong and let us take strength.” It is customary to say this phrase at the conclusion a book of the Chumash because the Torah is the source of all strength in life. It is strong, like stone, and gives us strength. It shows us the path, giving us stability, a sense of direction, and solid values upon which to build our lives. We say “be strong, be strong” because we have to be strong in our commitment to a life based on the values that Hashem has given us in His Torah. Then we add venitchazeik, “let us take strength”; the Torah gives us strength.
Every time we bentch, when we thank Hashem after each meal, we conclude with the verse Hashem oz le’amo yiten “Hashem will give strength to his nation.” The Talmud says that the word oz, strength, refers to the Torah. With this strength and stability there must also be a sense of wonderment in our journey of discovery, of finding the wisdom and the inspiration in the Torah.