Rabbi David Etengoff
Dedicated to the sacred memories of my mother, Miriam Tovah bat Aharon Hakohen, father-in-law, Levi ben Yitzhak, sister-in-law, Ruchama Rivka Sondra bat Yechiel, sister, Shulamit bat Menachem, Chana bat Shmuel, Yehonatan Binyamin ben Mordechai Meir Halevi, Shoshana Elka bat Avraham, Tikvah bat Rivka Perel, Peretz ben Chaim, the Kedoshim of Har Nof and Pittsburgh, and the refuah shlaimah of Yakir Ephraim ben Rachel Devorah, Mordechai ben Miriam Tovah, and the safety of our brothers and sisters in Israel and around the world.
The first three words of our parasha present a significant interpretative challenge. The phrase, “Im bechuchotai taleichu,” could readily be translated as: “If you will walk after (or follow) My chukim.” According to this approach, “chukim” refers to those commandments whose reasons remain unknown. This class of mitzvot is most often contrasted with mishpatim, commandments whose rationale can be logically deduced. The difference between these two categories is clearly presented in the following well-known Talmudic passage:
Our Rabbis taught: “You should perform my mishpatim” (Sefer Vayikra 18:4). These are matters that were they not actually written [by G-d] it is logical that they would have been. These are some examples: the prohibitions of idol worship, illicit sexual behavior, murder, stealing, and cursing Hashem. “… and you should guard my chukim” [Ibid.] These are matters wherein the Satan [Rashi, yetzer harah, the “evil inclination”] attempts to disprove their validity and veracity. These are some examples: the prohibitions of eating pig flesh, wearing garments comprised of a mixture of linen and wool threads, the act of relieving a brother-in-law of his obligation to marry his widowed sister-in-law (chalitzah), the ritual purification of the individual afflicted with tzarat, and the scapegoat rite [of Yom Kippur]. [Since you cannot understand them] perhaps you will say that they are completely worthless and devoid of meaning! Therefore the Torah states [ibid.]: “I am the L-rd your G-d.” I am He who has decreed it [i.e. the chukim] and you do not have permission to question them. (Talmud Bavli, Yoma 67b, translation, my own)
Rashi (1040-1105) takes a different approach, however, and does not translate bechuchotai as referring to chukim and the fulfillment of the Torah’s precepts even when their rationale is elusive. Instead, he explains our term as a synonym for intense involvement in Torah study:
If you follow My statutes I might think that this refers to the fulfillment of the commandments. However, when Scripture says, “and observe My commandments,” the fulfillment of the commandments is [already] stated. Therefore, what is the meaning of “If you follow My statutes [chukim]?” It means that you must toil in the study of Torah (Commentary on the Torah, Sefer Vayikra 26:3, this and all Rashi translations, The Judaica Press Complete Tanach, with my emendations)
Rashi’s deviation from our above-cited Talmudic passage is based upon Midrash Torat Kohanim 26:3:
“If you follow My statutes (chukim)” — I would have thought that this refers to the mitzvot. This, however, is the case when the Torah writes: “…and My mitzvot you will keep and perform them” — this is, indeed, referring to the mitzvot. [If so,] how do I fulfill “If you follow My statutes (chukim)?” — this refers to intense involvement in Torah study (amalim ba’Torah). (Translation and emphasis my own)
At first glance, it appears strange that the Midrash would interpret the word chukim in this manner. The Malbim (Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yechiel Michel, 1809-1879) notes, however, that our Sages explained the term in this manner on a number of occasions. By way of illustration:
Our Sages, however, explained the term “chukim” many times as referring to Torah study. This is noted in the Midrashim. [This explanation of our term] is based upon the numerous Torah laws and interpretations that result from the standard rules of exegesis and grammar, and upon the explanatory principles [such as Rabbi Yishmael's 13 hermeneutic principles] that are as authoritative [literally “fixed”] as the statutes pertaining to the heavens and the earth [i.e., the Laws of Nature] that Hashem established in His world. (Commentary on the Torah, Sefer Vayikra 26:3, subsection 2, translation my own)
In the Malbim’s estimation, this connotation of the term “chukim” is “based upon the standard rules of exegesis and grammar, and upon the explanatory principles.” Rashi’s interpretation of chukim as referring to intense involvement in Torah study is, therefore, congruent with the midrashic analysis of this term.
Based upon our passages from Midrash Torat Kohanim, Rashi and the Malbim, we are in a much better position to understand one of the key elements for rebuilding and strengthening our relationship with Hashem. May our dedication to depth-level Torah study send a glimmer of light to penetrate the spiritual darkness that so often surrounds our souls, and envelopes our time. With the Almighty’s help and our heartfelt desire, may each of us renew our commitment to the study of His holy Torah and thereby encounter Him anew, and relieve our finest moment at Mount Sinai. V’chane yihi ratzon.
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