Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Parashat Bechukosai

Im bechukosai tailaichu v’es mitzvosai tishmeru v’asisem osam ... If you will walk in my strictures and observe my mitzvos and perform them (Vayikra 26:3)

Rashi, quoting the Midrash, remarks that the phrase im bechukosai tailaichu teaches us that one must be an amal baTorah - literally, work in Torah, but more understandable as constant Torah study (see Ohr ha-Chaim). Sifsei Chachamim explains that the verb tailaichu - to walk - is not what one might have expected the Torah to use in this context. Usually, when we find a dictate to follow mitzvos, the expression used is tishmeru - observe - or ta’asu - fulfill - and indeed, these verbs are both used in the pasuk’s second phrase. Tailaichu, on the other hand, implies an obligation to making the chukim man’s weltaunschaung; i.e., the path of life that identifies his persona. Since the chukim are strictures of which we have no explanation and no understanding, they can only become the lifestyle of man if he constantly studies them. Man’s nature is to question and to try to find meaning in everything that he does; hence, cursory observance of the chukim will never make them the definitive expression of the way that he lives. It is only through constant “toil in Torah” - true amailus - that this can occur.

There is perhaps nothing more difficult to explain to students than the concept of ameilus baTorah. In all honesty, are there not many of us who are bored and distracted when we try to learn? Try as a rebbi might to make his shiurim relevant and contemporary, he is still faced with an uphill battle and often loses. How often is he confronted by sleepy faces and yawns and frustrated by his inability to penetrate the fog that descends when he begins to teach? I used to tell my students that if they had any entreprenurial sense, they would tape my classes and sell them to insomniacs!

Talmidim can well understand the concept of Torah study as being important historically. We would not have continued to exist as a nation without the battei midrash and yeshivot that served as klal Yisrael’s link to Hashem in the aftermath of the churban. However, it is extraordinarily difficult to help them translate that understanding - and the sincere desire to fulfill their obligations - into concrete methods that will bring them success. I well remember sitting in the beit midrash yawning and the mashgiach coming over to me and asking “what’s wrong?" I told him that I had no cheishek to learn, whereupon he responded, “so learn without cheishek!”

At the time I was annoyed by what I considered a flippant and uncaring response. It took me quite awhile to understand what he was trying to teach me. No fighter enjoys the grueling training that he undergoes to prepare for a fight. However, he knows that he must continue running and jumping rope even when his legs ache and he is fighting for breath. He sacrifices the present for the promise of the future and the more he trains, the more he realizes that he must continue. Everyday is a new challenge to do more than he did previously. Every weight that he lifts goads him on to add another disc to the barbell. He sweats and wheezes because he knows there is no other way.

It is the chukim specifically that create a Torah lifestyle, for their fulfillment demonstrates our loyalty to G-d; loyalty that is not a result of our understanding or logic but, rather, based on our willingness to subjugate ourselves to G-d and His strictures. That willingness only comes through ameilus baTorah, constant study and toil in Torah even when one has no cheishek. They are our personal training program and come to describe who we really are.

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