July 14, 2024
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Talk the Talk, Walk the Walk

אם בחוקותי תלכו—“If you will go in my statutes.” Rashi explains this is a reference to “toiling in Torah” [“שתהיו עמלים בתורה”]. Why doesn’t the pasuk just say outright that we should toil in Torah? Additionally, terming it as a חוק, and employing the language of תלכו—to “go,” seem to stand out!

Many ask, what’s our purpose in life? The Gemara (Sanhedrin 99) actually answers that and says אדם לעמל יולד—a person was born לעמל—i.e., to toil, to work, to put in his effort, to expend his energy, etc. If we could put it in different but similar terms, a person needs something to care about, devote themselves to, and invest themselves in. The Mesilat Yesharim’s opening words surround this idea where he says that the foundation of avodat Hashem is to come to a crystal-clear understanding of what a person should aspire toward and thus where he should place his efforts in.

It seems inherent, therefore, that the nature to work and be busy with something is a primary instinct. [It’s all too common that a few days into a vacation, one is already itching for some activity, for something to accomplish.] The Gemara concludes and impresses, however, that this force, this drive to succeed and toil, is to be directed in Torah.

The concept of “freedom” can perhaps be looked upon as an impossibility in its total sense. Many question the irony of Pesach, which is celebrated as a holiday of חירות—“freedom,” but yet marks the beginning of being servants to Hashem. The concept thus gleaned is that although one may achieve freedom from one thing, since a person naturally gravitates toward toil and working for a cause, one is bound to subjugate oneself, or become subjugated to, something else (see Da’at Torah, Bechukotai, p. 270). Pirkei Avot (chp. 3) says, “Whoever takes upon himself the yoke of Torah has the yoke of the government and the yoke of livelihood removed from him. And whoever removes from himself the yoke of Torah has the yoke of the government and the yoke of livelihood placed upon him.” It seems implicit that whether one likes it or not, being bound to something is inevitable. So Hashem says, אם בחוקותי תלכו—“toil in Torah”—choose to bind yourself to that which is the pinnacle of meaning and which is life itself. As the Sifra (Bechukotai, 1) says, “Hashem greatly desires for Bnei Yisrael to toil in Torah,” which R’ Chaim Friedlander (Moadim 3, p. 205) explains that this means to say that this is Hashem’s main will.

The Chafetz Chaim (Bechukotai) says that without the effort and toil one comes away with nothing in Torah. In fact, R’ Dovid Leibowitz (preface to sefer ברכת דוד) would say that even the greatest genius may not really grasp even the basic understanding of a Torah concept unless he put in effort and toil. Indeed, R’ Nosson Vachtofogel (“קובץ שיחות, “מהות האדם) says that acquiring Torah is only attained through a rigorous process involving his full focus, resolve, strength and intellect. Interestingly, this facet of “toiling” in Torah may be an end unto itself. As R’ Yerucham Levovitz (Bechukotai, p. 268) says, “toiling in Torah” does not mean to “learn,” nor does it even mean to “understand,” but rather it means to “toil.” I thought perhaps this is alluded to in the transference of servitude from being servants in Mitzrayim to being servants of Hashem, for we know that in Egypt the strenuous work was an end unto itself—much of it was totally unnecessary and served no practical purpose. Then, becoming servants of Hashem, we toil in Torah for the very sake of straining in it, whether we get somewhere practically or not. But as the Chafetz Chaim says, for the toil itself we get reward. Rashi on the Gemara (ibid) says, “Praiseworthy is he whose burden and toil is in Torah.” We thus perhaps see the emphasis on the effort and diligence alone.

Toiling in Torah may require a lot from us, but after a while it can become a capturing experience where one can be totally disconnected from the past and future and instead feel like he is living totally in the moment. R’ Chaim Friedlander (p. 195), based on the Vilna Gaon, explains that within Torah there are three categories: “mixed,” “helpful” and “good.” “Mixed” is one who learns to gain honor. His own personal pleasures are mixed into Torah. “Helpful” is one who learns in order to know Halacha. Hence, learning itself may be distasteful much like a medicine, but nevertheless it is helpful. “Good” is one who learns for the sake of learning itself because that is what Hashem wants. For him, every moment of learning, and the toiling itself, are “good” and pleasurable. Hence, R’ Freidlander says, through toiling in Torah, one eventually attains devotion and an inner connection to it.

After some time, the devotion attained through toiling in Torah becomes pronounced, and can be discernible whether it became part of a person’s identity and “second nature.” The first Midrash brought in the Yalkut Shimoni in Bechukotai describes David Hamelech’s experiences, where he says to Hashem, “Every day I would think to go to such-and-such place, but my feet would bring me to shul and the beit midrash.” Talk about someone’s legs having a mind of their own! What does this mean? David Hamelech was a person absorbed in Torah—“oh, how I love Torah, all day it is my conversation” (Tehillim, 119). We like to converse about things we care about and find interesting, and David Hamelech reached such a level where Torah was what he conversed about. True, he probably had things to do and needed to go to many places, and perhaps had many things he needed to talk over regarding his responsibilities. Yet, as R’ Yechezkel Levenstein (Ohr Yechezkel, middot, p. 28) explains, through the immense effort David put into spiritual growth, his legs, on their own, brought him to the places where he connected to. His deep involvement in Torah was so penetrating and so much a part of him that he was carried away toward a place of Torah.

R’ Galinsky notes that the word חוק can come from the word חקוקה, which means engraved. Thus, perhaps using the term חוק is meant to inspire our toil in Torah so that the Torah becomes engraved in us, so that it becomes our identity, to the point where our reflexes—such as what we talk about and where we go—reach a level of תלכו—of going, of gravitating toward conversing about Torah and going to places of Torah.


Binyamin Benji can be reached at [email protected].

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