To Labor in Torah Study

On the phrase,1 "If you proceed in My statutes," the Sifri states (as quoted by Rashi):

Is the intent the performance of the mitzvos? The continuation [of the verse] "and are careful to keep My commandments" pertains to the mitzvos. What then is the intent of "If you proceed in My statutes"? That you labor in the study of Torah.

This requires explanation: If the intent of the phrase is that Jews should observe the mitzvos , we could understand why the term bechukosai , "in My statutes," was used. Although there are three different types of mitzvos (chukim, eidus, and mishpatim), one could assume that the verse is referring to all three with the term chukim to imply that even the eidus and the mishpatim, which can be rationally understood, should be observed with the same commitment of kabbalas ol, acceptance of G‑d's yoke, as are the chukim.2

If it is postulated that the phrase is referring to the study of Torah, however, the term bechukosai presents a difficulty. Torah study involves comprehension and understanding. We must labor and review our studies, not only to know the laws, but to understand their motivating principles as explained in both the Written and Oral Law.

Some mitzvos are placed in the category of chukim because their motivating principle transcends understanding. As Rashi states:3 "It is a decree… you have no permission to question [its observance]." These are, however, a distinct minority within the Torah. By and large, the Torah was given in a manner which can be comprehended by a mortal mind.

To cite a parallel: The Written Law is quantitatively far smaller than the Oral Law. Now the mitzvah to study the Written Law can be fulfilled by merely reading portions from it. For this reason, even an unlearned man who does not understand what he is reading is required to recite a blessing before studying Torah. With regard to the Oral Law, by contrast, the fundamental element is understanding. When a person does not understand the passage he is studying, he may not recite a blessing before studying.4

There is a radical difference between the Written Law and the Oral Law. The Written Law is a bounded text, with a specific number of verses and letters. There is no possibility for addition. The Oral Law, by contrast, is not restricted in size. It is true that at present only a certain number of laws have been revealed, but in every generation there are additions, as our Sages commented:5 "Every new insight developed by an experienced sage was given to Moshe on Mount Sinai."

The same pattern is reflected within the Written Law itself. The part of the Written Law which transcends understanding and deals with chukim and the like is far smaller than the part which speaks about mitzvos that can be grasped.

As such, the use of the term bechukosai in the opening verse of the Torah reading is problematic. Since the intent is that the Jews "labor in the study of Torah," it would seem more appropriate to use another term. For as mentioned above, chukim represent a very small portion of the Torah.

An Integral Whole

In Likkutei Torah , the Alter Rebbe interprets the term bechukosai as related to the word chakikah, meaning "engraved." The implication is that we must labor in the study of Torah until the words are engraved within us.

The advantage of engraving over writing is not merely that engraved letters are united with the surface unto which they are carved, for this is also true with regard to written letters. Although letters written on parchment are not part of the parchment itself, they become united with the parchment.

Instead, the advantage of engraving is that the letters are not an independent entity. Their existence cannot be separated from the object onto which they have been engraved; the two form one integral whole.

This is the lesson the term bechukosai communicates with regard to the study of Torah. The intent is not merely that a Jew who studies the Torah should be united with the subject matter. The caution against studying Torah in a superficial matter, as Doeg the Edomite did,6 is a more elementary lesson. Instead, the intent of the phrase is to teach that a person must engrave the Torah he studies within his being. Studying in a manner which resembles writing in which two separate entities come together is not sufficient. Instead, one must study in a manner that resembles engraving; the student should cease to see himself as an independent entity; his entire existence is the Torah.

This approach was exemplified by Moshe our teacher, the first recipient of the Torah. His bittul, self-nullification, was so great that he identified totally with G‑dliness, saying7 "I will grant grass…." The word "I" refers to G‑d, and yet it was uttered by Moshe because "the Divine Presence spoke from his throat."8

A similar process of self-transcendence was manifest by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. His individual existence was entirely subsumed; he was nothing more than an expression of G‑dliness. For this reason, he could say:9 "I saw superior men and they are few… If there are two, they are my son and I. If there is one, it is I."10 Praising himself in this way was not a departure from the humility that is natural for the righteous, because he had no self-concern whatsoever.

Walking the Extra Mile

As mentioned on several previous occasions,11 every interpretation of a particular term or verse in the Torah is related to every other. Thus the interpretation of the Alter Rebbe, that Torah study must resemble "engraving," shares a connection to the simple meaning of the term bechukosai, referring to chukim, implying that one must study the Torah with kabbalas ol. It's true that a Jew must also understand the Torah, but the basis of his understanding must be kabbalas ol. He must seek to understand, not because of the resultant intellectual satisfaction, but because G‑d commanded that he comprehend what he studies.

For this reason he "labors" in Torah study, applying himself more than would be his natural tendency. Were his study to be motivated by only personal satisfaction, his commitment to study would be proportionate to the satisfaction he receives; he would not labor beyond his ordinary pattern.

On this basis, we can appreciate the connection between the two interpretations. Studying Torah with the commitment of chukim involves labor. This enables one's study to be internalized until it is "engraved," and the person and the Torah become an integral whole.

Making Progress

The other term in the opening phrase of the Torah reading: "If you proceed," is also worthy of attention. Proceeding implies a framework in which there are separate levels (e.g., separate rungs within the cosmic order of existence, the Seder HaHishtalshelus, or different attributes among the range of the powers of our soul), and a person proceeds from level to level, for example, from a lower level of love to a higher level, or from a lesser intellectual rung to a higher one.

How is it possible to make progress within the commitment of kabbalas ol? Since kabbalas ol transcends intellect, how is it possible for one level to be different than another?

In Likkutei Torah, the Alter Rebbe explains that the word "proceed" refers to the reward for our Divine service. If a person labors in the study of Torah with the commitment of bechukosai, he will be rewarded with the potential to "proceed," to make further progress.

This, however, represents a departure from the simple meaning of the text. When teaching the verse to a child, the term "proceed" refers to our Divine service, and the description of the reward begins with "I will provide you with rain in its season."12

Shifting Plateaus

In Likkutei Torah,13 it is explained that faith relates primarily to those levels of G‑dliness which cannot be grasped conceptually. The levels of G‑dliness which can be understood, must be understood. It is only after arriving at a consummate understanding of those levels which intellect can reach that the true concept of faith comes into play.

This is the difference between the faith of the Jewish people and the faith of the non-Jewish nations.14 Non-Jews believe in the levels of G‑dliness that can be perceived by intellect the G‑dliness which "fills up all worlds."15 This is not true faith. Jewish faith, by contrast, centers on the level of G‑dliness which transcends intellectual comprehension, the G‑dliness which "encompasses all worlds."16

With regard to intellectual comprehension, it is always possible to ascend from one level to another, as implied by the verse:17 "Days shall speak, and the multitude of years will communicate wisdom." As one's understanding grows, one's faith should be directed to ever-higher plateaus. Matters which one previously had to accept on faith come within one's conceptual grasp, and one's faith thus can rise upward.

This paradigm enables us to understand the concept of progress with regard to chukim. As one's understanding of the mitzvos grows, one's conception of the chukim should also change. Practices which one previously accepted as chukim should be shifted from that category, and comprehended intellectually.

We see this pattern expressed by Moshe. At the outset, he, like others, viewed the laws of the Red Heifer as a chok. After he advanced in his Divine service, G‑d told him: "I will reveal the rationale for the Red Heifer to you."18 From that time onward, Moshe could no longer consider the laws of the Red Heifer a chok. This is not to say that Moshe lacked the depth of commitment associated with chukim. Instead, the intent is that his appreciation of chukim shifted to a higher plane.

Similarly, every person must advance his understanding each day, and as a result, "proceed in My statutes" by coming to an ever-higher appreciation of chukim.19

Similar concepts apply with regard to labor in Torah study. What was yesterday considered a strain must today be considered natural, and one should set one's sights on further horizons.

And this will lead to G‑d's blessings: "I will give you rain in its season," and "I [will] lead you upright,"20 to Eretz Yisrael in the ultimate Redemption. At that time, we will proceed without bounds, going from strength to strength,21 until we reach a level which transcends all possible progress "the day which is all Shabbos and rest for life-everlasting."22

(Adapted from Sichos Shabbos Parshas Bechukosai, 5722)