Parshas Bechukosai: Learning and Doing
by Yehudis Litvak
Parshas Bechukosai begins with the following injunction: “If you will walk in My laws, and keep My commandments and do them…” (Vayikra 26:3). It seems redundant. What is the difference between walking in Hashem’s laws and keeping His commandments? And why does the Torah specifically use the word “walk” when speaking about following the laws?
Rashi explains, based on a Midrash, that walking in Hashem’s laws refers to learning Torah. “The Omnipresent desires that the Jewish people toil in Torah,” says Midrash Sifra on parshas Bechukosai.
The Maharal in Gur Aryeh elaborates on Rashi’s explanation. Why is toiling in Torah specifically associated with walking? He explains that walking requires an effort. In the same way, only by applying effort can one succeed in Torah learning.
Furthermore, walking implies getting from one place to another. With Torah learning, there is always potential to get further along the path, deeper than one was able to get yesterday or the day before. One who toils in Torah does not remain stagnant. That is why Torah learning is compared to walking.
The abovementioned verse refers to Torah learning as “chukosai,” “My laws.” More specifically, chukosai are the kind of laws whose reasons we do not understand. The injunction to learn the laws we will never understand is followed by “keep my commandments.” The Maharal explains that even though we may never fully understand these parts of Torah, by putting in an effort we will come to partial understanding. As we continue walking – continue our efforts at Torah learning – we will understand more and more.
And that is what Hashem is asking of us – to keep going, to continue learning even when we feel overwhelmed and despair of ever understanding. It is the effort that counts.
The distance between us and Hashem is infinitely immense. And when it comes to infinity, as much as we try to come closer, we remain hopelessly far away. But Hashem doesn’t expect us to bridge the distance on our own. He just wants us to try, to put in an effort. The toil itself, independently of the results, brings Hashem pleasure.
But learning itself is not enough. Rashi continues to explain the above verse, “Toil in Torah in order to keep it.” We need to practice what we learn.
The Maharal explains that the Torah uses the word “keep” to show that learning in order to do is precisely what will keep the Torah not only in our behavior, but deep inside our hearts as well.
But that begs the question: what is more important – learning Torah or keeping the commandments?
This question is discussed at length in Torah sources. The Gemara (Kiddushin 40b) tells of a conversation between Rabbi Tarfon and the Elders that took place in the attic of person named Nit’za in the town of Lod. The question was posed to them: what is greater – study or action? Rabbi Tarfon answered that action is greater. Rabbi Akiva answered that study is greater. The Gemara continues, “Everyone answered and said, ‘Study is greater because study leads to action.’”
This episode seems to imply that the ultimate purpose of Torah study is the proper fulfillment of halacha.
But the halacha itself seems to contradict this notion. The Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 246:18) states, “Torah learning is equal [in importance] to all of the mitzvos. If one has a choice between performing a mitzvah or learning Torah, if it is possible for the mitzvah to be done by others then he should not interrupt his learning, but if it’s not possible then he should do the mitzvah and afterwards return to his studies.” All else being equal, study is preferable to action.
Rashi on the above Gemara explains that Torah study and mitzvos go hand in hand. Perhaps they are of equal value?
Let’s take a look at another passage, a Mishna in Pirkei Avos (1:17), “Shimon, his son [son of Rabban Gamliel] used to say, ‘All my days I grew up among the Sages, and I didn’t find anything better for the body than silence. And it’s not the study that’s of essence but action. And whoever increases words increases sin.’”
This Mishna seems to take sides on the debate. Unlike the Shulchan Aruch, Rabbi Shimon ben Rabban Gamliel maintains that action is more important than study. But why is this statement sandwiched between his praise of silence and condemnation of excessive talk?
We will turn to the Maharal once again to attempt to understand this. In Derech Hachaim, the Maharal explains that the Mishna is talking about two aspects of human existence: mind and body. They are polar opposites. Speech is an expression of the body, and when a person is busy with the body, he cannot at the same time be busy with his mind, the opposite of the body. Silence, on the other hand, gives a break to the body and allows the person to focus on his mind. Thus, the body becomes secondary to the mind, “like a tail to a lion,” says the Maharal. But if a person speaks too much, his mind becomes secondary to his body, “a tail to a fox.” Therefore, Rabbi Shimon teaches that the best thing for the body is silence – because it allows the mind to take control.
Now let’s get back to our topic of action vs. study. The Maharal explains that study, being connected to the mind, is a higher level than action, which is connected to the body. It is precisely because action is lower than study that it serves as a foundation for study. The higher level of study cannot be achieved without first building the level of action.
Thus, Torah learning and keeping mitzvos go hand in hand, and each one is a prerequisite for the other. And that’s why the parsha enjoins us both to learn Torah and to keep mitzvos.
Yehudis Litvak is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and author of two Young Adult novels, Swords and Scrolls (http://jewishchildrensbookclub.com/bookstore/#!/Swords-and-Scrolls/p/71828515/category=20891129) and Spies and Scholars (http://jewishchildrensbookclub.com/bookstore/#!/Spies-and-Scholars/p/95264172/category=20891129).
Her passion is teaching Torah through literature, and she blogs about it at www.torahthroughliterature.com.