Of Chukos and Chizak
By Rabbi Pinchas Winston
"If you will walk in My statutes and keep My mitzvos and do them, then
will give your rains in their season; the land will yield its produce, and
the trees of the field will yield their fruit." (VaYikrah 25:3)
Thus begins the final parsha of Sefer VaYikrah, and the infamous section of
blessings and curses. On this verse, Rashi comments:
If you will walk in My statutes ... One might think that this denotes the
fulfillment of the mitzvos; but when the Torah says, "keep My mitzvos," it
is clear that this section refers to the fulfillment of mitzvos. How do we
explain "walk in My statutes" then? It is an admonition to study Torah
According to the Sifra, G-d is warning the Jewish people how to stay
connected to Torah and to Him. It is not enough to learn Torah; one must
learn it as if his life depends upon knowing Torah, for it does, as the
rest of this parsha of blessings and curses reveals.
However, one can ask: Why does the Torah use the word "chok" to refer to
diligent Torah study? A chok is a mitzvah whose meaning is often hidden
from us (Rashi; BaMidbar 19:1); Torah comes to reveal G-d's intentions, not
to hide them. Wouldn't the word "mishpat," which refers to "understandable"
mitzvos, have been a more direct allusion?
Furthermore, if "b'chukosai" refers to Torah study, why speak about
"walking" in it? How does one "walk" in learning? And finally, if the Torah
is so serious about making sure we get the message about Torah learning,
why not mention it directly, as opposed to alluding to it through the
double reference to mitzvos fulfillment?
The quintessential statute (chok) is the mitzvah of the para aduma, the red
heifer. For reasons known only to G-d (though Moshe did know this as well),
the kohen who used the waters made from the ashes of the red heifer to
purify one who was spiritually defiled (from contact with the dead) himself
became defiled in the process. In reference to this mitzvah, Shlomo
"I thought to pursue wisdom (chochmah), but it was distant from me."
It is interesting that Shlomo HaMelech referred to "chochmah," and not to
"binah" or "da'as," two words that typically refer to understanding an idea
in its entirety; "chochmah," generally speaking, refers to abstract
knowledge which often has yet to be articulated. It would seem that it was
on this level that Shlomo HaMelech already understood the mitzvah of para
aduma; was he not looking to bring that chochmah down to the more easily
relateable levels of binah and da'as?
The answer is no. What makes a chok a chok is the fact that, in spite of
the fact that it has an application down here in our physical world, it is
really a revelation of a level of knowledge far beyond what we are used to
relating to. This is why the ninth highest sefirah of Chochmah corresponds
to the "world" called "Atzilus" (from the Hebrew word "etzel" which means
"close by"), named so because of its close proximity to the Ain Sof (G-d).
"Mishpatim," or "judgments," though conceptually rooted Above can still be
understood through the eyes of this very physical world. However, to
understand chukim, one must be of a higher level of spiritual
consciousness, the level on which Kabballah speaks. Below this level, the
mitzvah will at best appear confusing and at worse, it will be the cause of
derision (as Rashi explains in Parashas Chukas).
Shlomo HaMelech had bemoaned the fact that, as wise as he had become, he
had not been able to penetrate this very high level of consciousness,
symbolized by the para aduma. On this level of Torah, there is tremendous
oneness beyond imagination. It is a level of knowledge on which there is no
hint of evil, or any of the divisive aspects characteristic of the worlds
below. It is here that human consciousness becomes one with Torah in
sublime unity with G-d. Hence the second meaning of the word chok: to
engrave, that is, mitzvos that become engraved on the heart of the Jew (Pri
Tzaddik, Chukas 2).
Now we can appreciate the Torah's message. To simply learn Torah is to
create an external spiritual atmosphere of Torah, but not necessarily an
internal one. Diligent Torah study means to probe the depths of Torah to
such an extent that, as a result, unity with Torah results. The ultimate
goal of Torah learning is not to bring it down "here" into the mundane
world, but to become elevated through Torah to reach higher levels, to rise
above the world of good and evil to the world of Ultimate Truth. The
indirect allusion to this by the Torah is a hint to the very process
itself, demanding that we go beyond the pshat (simple understanding) of the
This is precisely the process, according to Kabballah, that will occur once
Moshiach arrives, and which will continue on into the World-to-Come (but
which we can begin now). And as this process continues, whether in This
World, or the Time-to-Come, those who "walk" in this direction will find
themselves bound up in the unity of Torah, forever.
"If you will walk contrary (keri) to Me ..." (VaYikrah 26:21)
Our rabbis interpret the word (keri) to mean "irregularly," or "by chance."
If you had to find a reason to understand the basis of the varying levels
of commitment to a Torah-way of life found among the entire Jewish people,
it would be belief in Divine Providence. For some, the question is, "Does
G-d play a direct role in the lives of humans?" while for others the
question is, "How much?"
It is simple. If you believe G-d is merely "there" but not actively
involved in your life, you will feel less responsible to Him and His plan
for creation. If you not only believe He is "there," but playing an active
and direct role in the events of your life, then you will be more inclined
to work "with Him," which means first understanding how He works. The only
"manual" to claim to know and teach that is Torah.
To the Talmud, the questions don't even exist:
A man does not stretch forth a finger below unless it is first proclaimed
Above. (Chullin 7b)
The midrash echoes this thought:
Not even a blade of grass grows unless a "mazel" in the heaven first "hits"
it and commands it, "Grow!" (Bereishis Rabbah 10:6)
In other words, even the most "natural" and mundane events in creation,
such as the growing of a blade of grass, is orchestrated from Above. How
much more so, then, must the events of a person's life catch the attention
of heaven, and be subject to Divine will!
The truth is, the above midrash is not referring to the same level of
Divine Providence referred to by the Talmud. The concept of "mazel" often
translated as or used in place of the word "luck" is that of
pre-determination. It is well known that (authentic) astrologers were able
to "read" the stars (called "mazalos") and know the future of a person;
knowing such information did not allow a person to change his destiny.
What this means is that creation is not a randomly unfolding event; it has
a 6,000-year plan, and every detail of every moment of physical existence
(including a blade of grass) has been Divinely-designed to contribute its
share at the right moment to the fulfillment of this plan, whether the
person/thing knows it or not. The potential to fulfill this role is encoded
in a spiritual system for which the stars act as a "window."
In this world, people are born and events occur as a matter of a
pre-determined natural "cause-and-effect" reality, which we can sometimes
understand, and sometimes not understand. This is why, even though we can
often see ourselves as the cause of an event, we could not see, in advance,
how what we did could cause such an effect. In other words, in the natural
world, we seem more like "victims" of destiny than "makers" of it.
That is the way it was for everyone, until Avraham came along. He had been
an astrologer par excellence, and had lived his life by the stars. However,
in merit for his devotion to G-d, G-d invited Avraham to "rise above" the
stars, to become a "partner" with Him in shaping history and determining
its outcome (to whatever level was humanly possible; Shabbos 156a).
How? How was Avraham, and his descendants after him, supposed to
spiritually climb out of the world of pre-determined cause-and-effect and
into the world of Hashgocha Pratis, of individualized Divine Providence?
Through Torah. Torah is G-d's revelation of His system of cause-and-effect
for creation, the "rulebook" of how the natural world works, based upon
input from the supernatural world. When a Jew aligns his thinking with
Torah, he is not merely learning commandments and digesting interesting
stories; he is gaining insight into what makes the "machine" work, and why.
The impact of this is both obvious and awesome: the Jew has the ability to
It is to this that the Talmud refers when it says that, if the Jew merits
it, he can rise above mazel; if not, he is subject to mazel (Shabbos 156a).
Knowing and understanding the cause-and-effect relationship of creation,
one can design a cause to have a desired effect, and force creation to
change its course to suit this change (a potential that does not exist on
the level of the mazalos, but which does exist above them).
And it is to this potential reality of living that the Torah refers when it
warns the Jewish nation, "If you will walk contrary (keri) to Me ..."
In other words, the Torah is reminding us that, as descendants of Avraham,
we are meant to live above the world of mazel, above the natural world of
"keri." We are meant to become makers of destiny, not victims of it. To
choose the former is to reap the blessing mentioned at the beginning of the
parsha. To choose the latter, and to act as if individual Divine Providence
is but a concept and not an everyday reality, the Torah warns ominously, is
to slide into the world of pre-determined cause-and-effect, and to suffer
the consequences for doing so.
To the generation that had just received the Torah, this may have seemed
only a threat. For those have lived the thousands of years since then,
history itself bears witness to the veracity of the warning.
"Then I will remember My bris (covenant) with Ya'akov, and also the
covenant with Yitzchak; also My covenant with Avraham I will remember ...
Having read the full gamut of curses, wondering if there will be anything
left of the Jewish people if, G-d forbid, they are ever fulfilled, we are
told that in spite of all our straying, a remnant will always remain.
Indeed, even our worse enemies have commented on the miracle of our
However, in what merit? In our own merit? For some reason, looking around,
one wonders about the possibility of ever meriting the final redemption in
our day? In the merit of our Forefathers? Tosfos has already told us that
we used that merit up a long time ago (Shabbos 55a, q.v. Shmuel amar).
The answer is, in no one's merit, but rather, in the merit of something
called "Bris Avos."
"Z'chus Avos" (merit of the Forefathers) was a merit built up through the
deeds and devotion of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Ya'akov. However, merit is
quantifiable and as such, it has a limit. The Forefather's descendants'
failure to walk in the ways of their fathers drew upon that merit to
warrant Divine favor when they were yet unworthy of it, and completely
consumed that merit even before they left Egypt.
However, Bris Avos is the name of the promise made by G-d to Avraham that
is above-and-beyond the merits of his children. It is a promise that G-d
will always keep the seed of Avraham alive throughout history in this
world, and grant his children a portion in the World-to-Come when it is all
said-and-done. It is to this is that the above verse refers when it uses
the word "bris."
Of course, this does not mean that we are free from trying to play a
significant role in what will happen to us in the coming years, especially
since we are judged for what we tried to accomplish, not for what we
actually completed (Shabbos 55a). But it does remind us that, in spite of
what has happened and will happen to us (may it be good), a higher destiny
is there in the background looking out for our ultimate well-being.
For not learning Torah with the proper amount of devotion, the Torah
mentions that Jews will eventually come to scorn those who do the mitzvos,
and even prevent them from practicing them (VaYikrah 26:15; Rashi). This
includes marrying Jews "according to Da'as Moshe v'Yisroel," arranging
divorces according to Torah-law, and converting Jews as outlined in the
Shulchan Aruch of Rav Yosef Karo.
Furthermore, the Torah warns, such people will deny the Divine origin of
all the commandments, asserting that they had not all been commanded by
G-d. This is perhaps one of the greatest curses of all, for:
... Internal enemies are worse than external enemies; when the nations of
the world rise up against Israel they seek only what lies in the open ...
But those who rise from among you will seek your hidden treasures as well.
(Rashi, VaYikrah 26:17)
What are the "hidden treasures" of the Jewish people? Gold? Silver? Swiss
Bank Accounts? Respect in the eyes of the nations of the world?
The Jewish people is a holy nation. The reward for accepting Torah at Mt.
Sinai was to become a "goy kadosh," a holy nation ... a nation of priests.
What do we, as a holy nation, treasure most ... What "secret" do we hide
away that makes us unique as a people?
It is well known that when one recites the Shema each day, he does so out
loud until he reaches the verse, "Boruch Shem Kevod ..." (Blessed be the
Name of His Glorious Kingdom Forever), which he must whisper. The only
exception is on Yom Kippur, when we say both verse out loud.
Why whisper the second verse?
There are a few reasons why, but one of the most prominent of all reasons
is called: Emunas Yisroel.
Emunas Yisroel (Faith of Israel) is our as-of-yet-unproveable and what is
supposed to be our interminable belief that G-d is behind every single
aspect and event of history, what appears to be good and what appears to be
bad, and that everything He does, as Rebi Akiva reminded us, is for our own
good (Brochos 60a); that is, it is all to lead to the final redemption and
the period of Moshiach.
It is this belief that gives the Torah Jew the patience and courage to
withstand the attacks from without, and particularly from within. Devotion
to our tradition, in spite of demands from Western society, requires that
we believe that any reality other than the Torah reality will one day be
replaced, forever, by the latter. It is our faith that, as inglorious as
the world is out there, it is temporarily and secretly imbued with the
glory of G-d. As random and as pliable as history appears, it is neither;
the Torah Jewish must act with as much devotion as ever before.
A Torah lifestyle and commitment (especially in modern times) screams this
out to our own and the world around us, but to no avail; it is, for all
intents-and-purposes, as if we only whisper what is most precious to every
Jew. The world acts, with the inclusion of millions of Jews, as if this
treasured knowledge is a secret of the Orthodox alone.
It need not be this way, as many "ba'alei tshuva" (those who have returned
to Torah) have proven. And it is certainly worthwhile, before trying to
change Torah and its time-honored approach to life, or to "reinterpret"
what has never been unclear to mainstream Judaism, to consider if what one
is doing is avoiding the curse, or fulfilling it. Nothing can be worse than
thinking that one is a "friend" of the Jewish people, only to find out in
the end that one was, in fact, an "enemy from within."
It is a fitting end to the book of Holiness, and an important "chizuk"
(strengthening) for the Jewish people before going out into the desert over
3,300 years ago; it is a fitting "chizuk" for all of us 3,300 years later
who live in a desert of our own.