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Parashat Behukotai 5784

Walking the Walk

May 28, 2024
by Rabbi Rena H. Kieval ('06)

“Why? Because, I said so!” Many of us heard those words as children, when we questioned something we were told to do. The reason given was, “Because I said so!” We ourselves may have said those words, as parents or teachers, in our roles as authority figures.

This week’s parashah, Behukotai, is named for hukkim, the rules mentioned in the opening verse. According to rabbinic tradition, hukkim are statutes for which there is no rationale. We are to obey them “because God said so.”  The sages of the Talmud note, “And you shall keep my statutes (hukkotai; Leviticus 18:4)” refers to rules which may be challenged, because the reasons for them are not known. They cite a list of examples of such hukkim, including the prohibition against eating pork, against wearing shatnez (garments of diverse fabrics), and the scapegoat of the Yom Kippur ritual. The Talmudic passage concludes, “And lest you say these are meaningless acts, the verse states: “I am the Lord” (Leviticus 18:4), to indicate: I am the Lord, I decreed these and you have no right to doubt them.” (B Yoma 67b) In other words, observe these “because God said so.”

We may bristle at the notion of hukkim.  As modern, thoughtful adults, we cherish our freedom to choose. Traditional beliefs about hukkim and about being “commanded” are countercultural for us. We expect to follow practices that we understand, not to obey rules “because I said so.” If we believe that we are being asked to surrender our autonomy, or suspend our critical thinking, our relationship to Jewish tradition and in particular, our concept of God may be affected. We might experience God as authoritarian, distant and rigid. But there are more nuanced ways to approach the idea of hukkim.

In their comments on a separate Torah verse about hukkim, the authors of the Etz Hayim Torah commentary offer three types of relationship with God that may be reflected in the notion of hukkim: “(a) as that of slave to master; (b) as that of pupil to teacher, in which the pupil assumes that the teacher knows what is right and necessary even if the pupil cannot see the point of it, although the pupil may one day to understand it, or (c) as that of people in love, in which one takes pleasure in knowing what he or she can do to please the beloved.” (Etz Hayim Torah and Commentary, Jewish Publication Society, 2001, comment on Lev. 19:19, p. 697.) The writers’ third option evokes a relationship that is not authoritarian, but is rather a loving relationship in which it is not necessary to have a logical explanation for all the actions asked of us. We act for other reasons.

The language of our parashah suggests another, subtler way to think about the rules which have no rationale. When the Torah speaks of hukkim in this parashah, it does not use the more typical language of “obey” or “follow,” usually the root “sh-m-r” in Hebrew. Rather, here the Torah says: if you walk with My hukkim. Im behukotai teleikhu (Leviticus 26:3) Walk with My ideas, with these guidelines. In other words, choose this way of life and move with it. Walk, live your life, within a particular framework. If we think about walking with them, we can see the hukkim as less about lists of particular rules, and more about the overall path we travel. We do not necessarily understand every twist and turn on the road; we know that we may encounter signposts that are confusing, or even objectionable. We may enter uncharted territory. We are on a journey, in a dynamic relationship with mitzvot, with Torah, with a way of life. While we do have a static collection of rules, some even set in stone, we are also walking, moving.

The Torah commentator Kli Yakar expands on the concept of walking in his comment on our parashah’s opening verse. Following Midrash Rabbah, he plays on the Hebrew word for leg – regel. He says, first we train our legs, literally, to walk us to the performance of mitzvot. Over time, these steps become ragil – regular – as mitzvot become second nature, part of our regular behavior. Just as physical exercise helps us cultivate muscle memory, our spiritual life grows through our walking habits, and we develop mitzvah memory.

This dynamic image for a life of mitzvot begins in the Torah with Abraham, who is first called to walk, to go, with God – lekh lekha. Not to obey, but to walk. And of course, Jewish law is called in Hebrew not law, but halakhah – the way to walk.

The Torah asks us to cultivate a habit to walk in God’s ways. We may not understand each signpost on the journey, but as in any deep relationship, we may not need to. As in any deep relationship, there will be times that we question, challenge, take a detour or even break away from the path. We know that along with hukkim, the Jewish path also includes a fierce tradition of open-minded questioning. Deciding when we need to challenge or resist, and choosing what path to take, are also part of the walk.

The language of our parashah adds one further point about this journey. If you do walk in My ways, says God, Vehithalakhti betokhehem, then I will be ever present in your midst. (Lev. 26:12, JPS translation.)  In a more literal translation of the verse, by Everett Fox, “I will walk about in your midst.” If we walk with God, God also “walks about” with us. This God is neither distant nor stagnant; rather the divine presence is with us, walking and moving among us. As the full verse states, “I will walk about in your midst, and I will be your God and You will be my people.” On this walk, we are in relationship with a divine companion. Surely that is a walk worth taking.
Rabbi Rena Kieval was ordained as a rabbi by AJR in 2006. She retired in June 2022 as full-time rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom in Albany, NY, and continues to teach, write and study.