Lectures on the Torah Reading

by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University

Ramat Gan, Israel

Parashat Behar-Behukotai

A project of Bar-Ilan University's Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Sponsored by Dr. Ruth Borchard of the Shoresh Charitable Fund (SCF). Published with assistance of the President's Fund for Torah and Science. Permission granted to reprint with appropriate credit.
Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il

Parashat Behar-Behukotai 5758/1998


"Getting into the Groove"

Dr. Moshe Sokolow

Director, Educational Services Program

Max Stern Division of Communal Services

RIETS-Yeshiva University

I. Walk: Don't Walk

The first verse of this week's sidrah consists of three parts:

If you walk in My statutes if you observe My commandments and perform them.

These stand in direct contrast to verses 14-15, which also have three parts:

If you don't perform the commandments reject My statutes and despise my laws

By matching the respective nouns and verbs, we come up with the following pairs:

  1. statutes (HUKKIM) can either be walked in or rejected;
  2. commandments (MITZVOT) can either be observed or not performed;
  3. and laws (MISHPATIM) can be despised (or, by implication, respected).

The etymologies of these three nouns are significant: MITZVAH (commandment or instruction) derives from the verb TZV"H, to command, and MISHPAT (law or ordinance) derives from SHP"T, to judge or govern. Both are obviously legalistic terms.

The noun HOK (statute), however, derives from the verb HK"K whose essential meaning is: "to engrave." A HOK, then, is an engraving, or--a groove. Our parasha begins with the phrase: "If you walk (TELEKHU) in my HUKKIM (statutes)." Ordinarily, the verb HL"K accompanies the word DEREKH (path--from the verb DR"K, "to tread, or step"); How does one walk in a HOK?

II. HOK: An Imitation

The verb HK"K also has a derivative, HK"H, "to imitate." The contemplation of this secondary sense opens an alternative consideration: HOK as the sincerest form of flattery; imitation (HIKKUY).

In the book of Leviticus, in particular, we have encountered, repeatedly, the exhortation: "Be holy, for I am holy," and we are familiar with the rabbinical interpretation of "imitatio dei" as emulating God's attributes. It is noteworthy, in light of this definition, that the text of the Tokhehah (rebuke) with which this book concludes, addresses this requirement as well.

If MITZVAH, as we pointed out earlier, derives from God's role as commander, and MISHPAT from His position as sovereign, then the origin of HOK may lie in the recognition of God as the ultimate role model.

III. Rejection and Expulsion

The negative term the Torah uses regarding the statutes is TIM'ASU, from the verb M'S, meaning "to despise, reject, or abhor." The negative term which it uses for the laws is TIG`AL, from the verb G`L (with an 'AYIN), meaning "to loathe, reject, or abhor." We see that while the contrast between the observance and transgression of the MITZVOT is given in the objective and relatively value-free terms of performance and non-performance, the contrast regarding the HUKKIM and the MISHPATIM utilizes the highly value-laden terms of abhorrence and loathing.

Rashi carries this negative evaluation even further. On the earlier appearance of the verb G`L in verse 11, he comments: "Every instance of G`L signifies the expulsion of one thing from within another." According to this interpretation, the accusation leveled against the Jewish people in v. 15 is not merely nonfeasance, the failure to perform the MITZVOT, but repugnance, loathing the MITZVOT and desiring to be rid of them.

In theological terms, this distinction is telling. Whereas the failure to perform, or the transgression of, any individual MITZVAH has a stipulated, specific penalty, the abhorrence and rejection of MITZVOT in toto incurs more and more severe penalties, the most severe of which is God's abhorrence and rejection of the Jewish people. As the Torah states in v. 30, utilizing the very words of v. 15: VE-GA`ALAH NAFSHI ETKHEM; "I (says God) shall loathe and reject you". Illustrating the principle of reciprocity (Middah ke-neged middah), the Jewish people's expulsion of the word of God from their midst incurs their expulsion from His midst, i.e., from the Land of Israel.

IV. KERI: Keeping It Casual

Seven times in the sidrah there appears the word KERI, accompanied-each and every time!--by the verb HL"K. The question we posed at the end of Part One: "How does one walk in a HOK?" now has a counterpart in: "How does one walk in a KERI?"

The noun KERI (spelled, in Hebrew, with a kof) derives from the verb KR"H, to befall or occur, and "to go in KERI" is effectively translated as "to act casually." If the Jewish people regard the presence of God in their midst as mere "happenstance," God- again illustrating the principle of reciprocity-threatens to similarly regard their presence in His midst: "For having behaved with Me casually, I, too, shall behave casually with them and bring them into the land of their enemies" (vs. 40-41).

Since the consequences of "walking in KERI" are identical with those of "abhorring My HUKKIM," we are entitled to assume an identity between the two phrases, which we will now explore.

V. A Groove or a Rut? A Communal Corollary

A good deal of religious life revolves around regular obligation whose fulfillment often seems to be by way of rote performance. Some religious inspirational literature (such as that of ta'ame ha-mitzvot) counteract the casualness of routine by investing it with ethical or moral significance. Other literature (such as the Kabbalistic variety) attempts to offset it by infusing (critics would say, confusing) the mundane with the sublime. Our examination of HOK and KERI, however, offers us another paradigm: the distinction of perspective.

Two people can walk the same road without following the same path. Outwardly alike in all respects, they can differ from one another in essence and purpose. What appears to one as a rut in which he is stuck can strike the other as a groove, a comfortable niche in which he belongs. We must view them not by their actions alone, but by their motives-as regulated by their perspectives.

Maimonides, in defining degrees of non-conformity with Halakhah, draws a similar distinction from which we may derive an important contemporary lesson in tolerance. On the one hand, he says:

Those who are included in the category of Israel-we are obligated to love them and care for them and do everything God has commanded us concerning love and brotherhood. Even if a Jew committed any sin due to his lust and the overpowering nature of his evil inclination, he is punished according to the severity of his transgression, but still has a share [in the world to come], and he is deemed an "Israelite sinner" [mi-posh'ei Yisrael].

[Commentary on the Mishnah, Sanhedrin 10:1]

On the other hand, however:

These are [the categories of] those who have no portion in the world-to-come: …anyone who commits transgressions publicly in a high-handed fashion…

[Mishne Torah, Laws of Repentance 3:6]

Of all transgressions, however, the declaration of KERI is the most reprehensible. According to Maimonides, a Jew who rejects the direct providence of God-for better or for worse--preferring to see everything as casual happenstance, has committed a crime which is tantamount to heresy:

Five are called heretics: He who says there is no God and the universe has no guide…

[ibid., 3:7]

V. In Summation:

In other words, transgression of God's law due to nonfeasance is culpable, but however we would-and should!-condemn it, it does not place the transgressor outside the pale of Jewish communal concern and redemption. Transgression of His law due to abhorrence is censurable and irremediable, and the treatment of providence as mere accident constitutes so thorough a rejection of the essence of divinity as to constitute an irredeemable heresy.

To conclude with an analogy of "imitation:" Just as God recognized His need for man-for otherwise He would have had no need of creation-so must man acknowledge his need for a Divine Presence in his life. If the divine tefillin are inscribed with the uniqueness of the Jewish people, their tefillin must be similarly inscribed with the recognition of His providential supervision.