If you will go in My decrees and keep My Mitzvos and perform them; then I will provide rains in their time, and the land will give its produce and the tree of the field will give its fruit. (Vayikra 26:3)
If you will go in My decrees…If you follow My decrees by engaging in intensive Torah study, with the intention that such study will lead you to observe … (Rashi: Sifri)
How is going in HASHEM’s decrees equated with toiling in Torah study. How does the idea of going translate into “engaging in intense Torah”?
The Torah is dense with life lessons and directives from HASHEM. Here are a few rules to decoding those holy messages. Firstly, every word in Torah has daily relevance for everyone one of us. Secondly, if the same word is used in two different places in the Torah, there is a connection. It may not be obvious but there is a relationship between the two subjects. Thirdly, the Sefas Emes points out that just as there are positive or action Mitzvos, things to do, and there are “negative” Mitzvos, requirements to refrain, and not do, so many Mitzvos have a companion. “Pursue purse justice” is paired with “distance yourself from a lie. In one case we are meant to avoid falsehood and at the same time to chase after truth. They work together, as King Dovid writes, “Turn from bad and do good…”.
Armed with this info let us look at the opening words of Parsha B’Chukosai, “Im b’chukosai telechu…If you will go in my decrees…”. The word “telechu” – going” is employed at the very end of Parshas Acharei Mos. We are cautioned, “B’Chukosehem lo telechu”- “Do not go in the way of their statutes” (the ways of the nation).
Now we have a companion to “Im b’chukosai telechu” – if you will go in My decrees” and “B’Chukosehem lo telechu”- “Do not go in the way of their statutes”. How does one effectively live amongst a foreign culture and yet remain separate? It’s a very great challenge and it has been the secret of our survival now for many thousands of years, to remain distinct. Practically, how is it done?
The answer is as simple as riding a bike. A colleague told me recently that there are three things you learn from riding a bike. 1) If it’s hard, you are going up hill. 2) If it’s easy, you are going down. 3) If you are standing still, you lose your balance.
The Maharal says that the “going”, literally walking, requires continuous effort. It’s not like driving a car. One must continually exert himself to move from station to station. Standing still is not an option when avoiding being seduced by the surrounding culture. One must have a strong drive, a clear vision of what they want to make out of themselves and continually strive to achieve that goal. There must be a healthy tension between the “is” and the “ought”, like one who is walking or riding a bike on a slight incline.
There was a fisherman who had a sign advertising, “Fresh Fish”. A skeptic challenged him, “How do you know that you are selling fresh fish? When fish die, they float on the water. Maybe the fish you captured in your net were dead and they are not fresh!” The fisherman guaranteed that his fish were fresh.
The skeptic asked him, “How can you guarantee that?” The fisherman answered, “I sweep my net downstream. I am catching fish that are swimming upstream, and if a fish is swimming upstream then, it’s alive!” Like Avraham Avinu, a live Jew has to swim against current trends and do what’s right.
At a Yeshiva reunion, years back, someone said to me, “Decades have passed, Reb Label, and you are exactly the same.” I took it as a complement and I told him, “You don’t know how much work it has taken just to remain the same.
HASHEM implores us if you will just go in MY statutes and not the ways of the nations, it will take a clarity of purpose and it may be hard but it will be well worth the effort.