Sifra, Bechukotai 1:2 questions what is meant by the charge, in Vayikra 26:3, “[i]f My statutes, you will follow.” If this phrase intends to introduce the positive consequences of observing the Divine commandments, the verse, itself, actually continues with that very statement, adding to the above line the further phrase “and My commandments you will observe.”1 So what is meant by this charge to follow God’s statutes? The Sifra explains that this call to follow the chukim, translated here as statutes, of Torah actually refers to toiling in Torah, specifically Torah study. The charge of God of im bechukotai teileichu [if my statutes you will follow] actually means: ‘if you toil – diligently work and study hard – in Torah.
Torah Temima, Vayikra 23:3, note 12 explains how the Sifra came to this determination that the following of statutes means toiling in Torah study. He explains that chukim really refers to the commandments of the Torah that are only properly understood and explained through intense effort in Torah study. To be ameilim b’Torah, to toil in Torah, means to diligently study Torah and analyze it, with the utmost intensity of thought, applying the traditional rules of Torah study. This is what the verse is stating: if My chukim you will follow – which demands the highest intensity of Torah study – is effectively and essentially a call to be so diligent in Torah study.
Malbim, Vayikra 23:30 expresses a similar idea, pointing out as well that the term chukim often is used by Chazal [the Talmudic Rabbis] to refer to the study of Torah. Malbim, however, does touch upon a further issue as he presents his thoughts on how the term chukim in this verse indicates toil in Torah study. The term chukim is generally used to describe the various Divine commandments that do not have rational explanations – so Malbim wonders how this term is also then applied to refer to intense Torah study. He answers that the process of Torah study demands the application of the various Divine rules and methodologies, given at Sinai, that, like the unexplainable chukim commandments, reflect the Divine presence in this world. There are Divine rules in this world and when we apply the Divine rules of Torah study in our study we establish this understanding of God in this world. This, he writes, is the very purpose of intense Torah study – to understand these rules – which then leads us to proper behavior. The verse is thereby informing us that we are to be ameilim b’Torah which connects us to the Divine.
To be ameilim b’Torah, however, also demands of us to intensely use our rational faculties in Torah study and to consider the rational mitzvot, those we do understand. The question may thus not be why the term chukim refers to being ameilim b'Torah but, rather, why, in the context of this verse, this term specifically draws us to this concept of diligence in Torah study. Rational thought would also seem to demand of us to be ameilim b’Torah. T.B. Yoma 67b, in explaining Vayikra 18:4, notes how the Torah itself informs us of these two types of mitzvot: those, such as the prohibition of murder, which, if they were not written in the Torah, humanity would have enacted in any event, and those, such as the prohibition of wearing shatnez [a mixture of wool and linen], which has no basis aside from its Scriptural instruction. Rambam, Shemona Perakim, Chapter 6 further elaborates on the specific value and significance of both these categories of mitzvot -- the chukim and the mitzvot sichliyot [rational commandments].2 Observance of Torah and diligence in Torah study demands both these sides of Torah and our understanding of them both. The question thus must be: why are chukim alone deemed to point to being ameilim b’Torah?
Sifra, Bechukotai 1:1 actually begins its explanation of im bechukotai teileichu with the idea that it teaches us that God desires us to be ameilim b’Torah.3 We may wonder what may means for doesn’t God desire us to observe all aspects of the Torah? The Sifra is obviously referring to some special significance in being ameilim b’Torah, some overall value that it possesses that must permeate all of Torah. We are to observe Torah but the call of this verse is that this observance be preceded by intense, and necessary, Torah study.4 The reality of Torah is that it cannot be comprehended in a fundamentalist way. If one tries to read the text without the intense analysis of thought, one will actually miss what the Torah is really trying to impart. A belief in Torah She B’al Peh [the Oral Law] is not just a belief in an oral compendium of facts and rules that accompanies the written Torah text. A belief in Torah She B’al Peh is a belief in thinking and that God demands of us to do so, applying the analytical principles of Torah She B’al Peh, in our attempt to understand His Word. If we compare this perspective to that presented by many other religious perspectives in the world, we, perhaps, can truly understand this value of being ameilim b’Torah. God desires us to think, to study hard in our attempt to understand Torah. That is a call for a very different religious persona than is often found in the world.
The starting point of this challenge of thought may actually be the chukim and so being ameilim b’Torah is also alluded to with this specific term. Chukim, on the surface, may seem to actually challenge a significance in human thought for do they not represent the mitzvot that we do not understand? The fact is that, even as we also declare their value beyond our reason, throughout the ages, scholars have still attempted to understand them. Throughout the ages, applying the principles of Halacha, scholars have attempted to give them practical application in our everyday lives. It may be more correct to define chukim not as laws we don’t understand but rather as laws whose meaning is presently beyond us just as ultimate knowledge of God is beyond the human being. Yet, there is still value in striving for this goal. There is still value in reaching any aspect of understanding that we can gain. The infinite challenge of the chukim is to be ameilim b’Torah.
Rabbi Benjamin Hecht
1 For purposes of clarification, we may wish to present the question a bit differently. The verse reads: “If my statutes you will follow and my commandments you will observe...” In that the Torah does not repeat itself, why the need for the two phrases? Following statutes must be different than observing commandments – so, essentially, the question is: what is this difference?
2 See, also, Rabbeinu Nissim Gaon, Introduction to the Talmud.
3 Hagahot u’Biurei HaGra, Sifra, Bechukotai 1:1 explains that this presentation of the desire of God is alluded to in the fact that God presented the rewards for proper behavior before presenting the consequences of negative behavior. The fact is that God does not want us to simply avoid transgression but wishes us to act properly – and so He presents the reward before the punishment. Gra also explains this further. If the sole purpose of these admonitions was to instruct, all that would be necessary is really to state the consequences of the transgressions. As with, for example, our criminal system, the law instructs by declaring the penalty for violation. The fact that God not only presented the rewards for proper behavior but stated them first indicates more than that He wants observance of the law but that He desires good. In that being ameilim b’Torah is mentioned first informs us how significant this is to Him.
4 See, also, Malbim.
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