“Halacha” is the word that we all use to describe Jewish law. Yet, in the Torah itself, it is never used in that context. Instead, we find many other words such as “chok,” “mishpat,” “mitzvah,” etc., for technically speaking “halacha” implies “a way to walk.” So why does our tradition use specifically the word “halacha” to describe Jewish law? The answer may lie in the opening and closing sections of Parshat Lech Lecha.
Lech Lecha is not only the name of this week’s parsha, it is also the very first word (and command) that Avraham hears directly from God:
The Lord said to Abram, “Go forth from your native land… to the land that I will show you.” (Bereishit 12:1)
In the eight verses that follow, that very same verb (“lalechet,” to walk) is used at least four times to describe that seminal journey of our forefather to the Land of Israel.
Then, toward the conclusion of Parshat Lech Lecha in the opening line of chapter 17, we find the same verb, but now in its reflexive form (“hitpael”). In contrast to its first use as a one-time instruction, now it defines an eternal commandment:
When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am El Shaddai. Walk before Me and be blameless.” (Bereishit 17:1)
This verse serves as God’s introduction to His eternal covenant to be made with Avraham and his offspring—where God promises both a special land and special relationship with a nation, chosen to serve Him forever:
I will uphold My covenant between Me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations, as an everlasting covenant, to be a God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give the land where you sojourn to you and to your offspring after you, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting possession, and I will be their God. (Bereishit 17:7-8)
Interestingly, we find a very similar introductory phrase (also followed by a covenant) in the Torah’s introduction to the Flood story, used to describe the virtues of Noach:
This is the line of Noach – Noach was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age; Noach walked with God. (Bereishit 6:9)
The Torah here contrasts between Noach and Avraham. Noach was chosen for who he was. Avraham and his offspring are chosen for what they need to be!
An even more striking parallel between Avraham and Noach is clear when the Flood story concludes with God’s “Rainbow Covenant,” His promise never to destroy His Creation again, which is linguistically similar to His “Circumcision Covenant” with Avraham in chapter 17.
In both covenants, we find very similar phrases:
I will uphold my covenant between Me and you (9:11; 17:7)
an everlasting covenant (“brit Olam” 9:12,16; 17:7,13)
a sign (reminder) (“ot brit” rainbow 9:12-13; circumcision 17:11)
God’s Name – “Elokim” (9:8,12,16,17; 17:3,7,8,9)
As the Flood story sets the thematic stage for God’s choice of an Avraham Avinu in Sefer Bereishit, these parallels may suggest that God’s covenant to establish a nation to serve Him must be connected to God’s covenant never to destroy humankind again. Possibly, if God can no longer “start over” with His Creation, He now chooses a People that can facilitate fixing His Creation by serving as His “model nation” – who will “walk before God” and strive to be perfect in their ways.
As the rest of the Torah details numerous laws and principles that will guide and regulate that ideal behavior, one could suggest that when the rabbis over the centuries attempt to apply the Torah’s guidelines to any specific new situation, they refer to their legal conclusion as “halacha” – for, in essence, when we follow “halacha” we are not only obeying laws, we are trying our best to “walk before God.”
Rabbi Menachem Leibtag is an internationally acclaimed Tanach scholar and online Jewish education pioneer. He is a member of the Mizrachi Speakers Bureau ( www.mizrachi.org/speakers ).