If you walk in My statutes … I will walk among you…(Vayikra 26:3, 12)
The path leads further than the eye can see:
behind, it melts in darkness;
ahead it touches sky.
It cuts a swathe through rugged ground
en route to fertile land:
each one alone must seek the way.
Yet on this path, four cubits’ span,
where two can travel side by side
God asks of us to walk with Him.
In his book, The Language of Truth* Rabbi Arthur Green brings a commentary by the Sefat Emet on the opening words of the parasha, “If you walk in My statutes...“. The Sefat Emet cites a Midrash quoting the verse, “I considered my ways; I returned my steps [lit.: “feet”] to your statutes (Psalms 119:59). The Midrash comments: “David said, “Master of the Universe! Every day I consider going to such-and-such place, to such-and-such dwelling, and yet my feet bring me to synagogues and houses of study.” ” “A man’s steps are from God and He desires his way (Psalms 37:23). The Sefat Emet teaches that a person who serves God and is always yearning to find those paths that are unique to him or her, will be guided by God. The Midrash explains that “my feet bring me” means that David would “consider” and “long each day to find the way of God”.
This, says the Sefat Emet, is the meaning of “If you walk in My statutes...“: it is within a person’s capability to decipher “the ways and patterns that God has inscribed into the human soul”. The Midrash derives that the statutes are called “chukkim” (lit.: “inscriptions, engravings”) because they are carved within us, imprinted on our soul, to lead us to God. The Sefat Emet concludes this commentary by noting that when David said “I considered my ways” in the plural, he was always seeking those paths that were uniquely his, and because he invested so much effort, he received Divine help.
In a commentary on Parashat Bechukotai, http://learn.jtsa.edu/content/commentary/behukkotai/5774/walking-together-god, Rabbi Daniel Nevins notes that the theme of walking recurs several times in the Parasha (the verb to walk occurs three times in the first 10 verses). The opening words “If you walk in God’s statutes” are followed by a description of the blessings that will accrue as a result, and especially that God will walk among the people. It was He, they are reminded, Who freed them from the yoke of Egypt allowing them to walk erect. In the next section, which describes the dire consequences of breaking the covenant, God says that if the people will walk coldly, hostilely with Him, He will walk hostilely with them. Rabbi Nevins wonders what the metaphor of walking in the Torah might signify.
He notes that the Torah is replete with allusions to walking, among them: Enoch is a righteous man who “walked with God and then he was no more, for God took him.” (Bereishit 5:24). Noah is praised for walking with God (Bereishit 6:9). Abraham is the most prodigious walker travelling vast distances, obeying the Divine command to “arise, walk around the land” (Bereishit 13:17) and is further told, “Walk before Me and be blameless” (Bereishit 17:1). God walks ahead of the people in a pillar of cloud (Shemot 13:21) and later, Moses promises that “God walks before you; He will not release you nor will He abandon you,” (Devarim 31:8). King David asks of God, “Show me your paths, that I might walk in your truth” (Psalms 86:11). The people of Israel make a walking pilgrimages to Jerusalem three times annually, and we are adjured in the Shema to speak of God’s teachings “when you sit in your homes and when you walk on the way.”(Devarim 6:7) The prophet Hosea notes that God’s paths are smooth and the righteous can walk on them, while sinners stumble on them. (Hosea 14:10). The prophet Micah is considered to have condensed the essence of the Torah as “walking humbly with your God.”(Micah 6:8)
So Rabbi Nevins asks, “Is it any wonder that Judaism came to associate its method of religious practice with walking? The Rabbis created a normative world known as halakhah (“the walk”), and the Sage Ulla claimed that since the Temple was destroyed, the Holy One has no place in the world except for the four cubits of halakhah (BT Berakhot 8a). This could sound claustrophobic, but unlike the Temple, the halakhah is not enclosed on four sides. It has boundaries, but its origins stretch back to the mythical beginning of time, and its destination remains beyond our imagination. What matters about the Jewish walkway is not endlessly broad, but rather has defined edges that lend it coherence.”
Rabbi Nevins imagines the four cubits of halakhah as the width of the path. He calculates that as a cubit is said to be between 18 and 24 inches long, a four-cubit path would thus be six to eight feet wide. “It is broader than a trail, but narrower than a proper road. It is just right for two people to walk side by side, engaged in an animated conversation as they cross the countryside.”
He continues, “This metaphor of walking and talking is a beautiful way to think of Jewish life. Our religion has seldom emphasized solitary meditation. The image of a monk in a cell staring at a candle and breathing deeply is not immediately recognizable as a Jewish ideal, though there is certainly room for such spiritual practices in our religion. Walking on a path together is a social, dynamic metaphor. And if you imagine, as our portion does, that God is available to join you for a walk, then religious life becomes an adventure.”
In a video commentary on Parashot Behar-Bechukotai, https://www.alephbeta.org/course/lecture/behar-bechukotai-walking-with-god, Rabbi David Fohrman addresses this idea of walking with God. He notices the phrase, “vehithalachti betochechem – and I will walk among you” which expresses God’s promise that He will walk among us if we walk in His statutes. Rabbi Fohrman notes that there is a connection between this parasha and the events that occurred in the Garden of Eden. Rashi comments on the use of the same grammatical conjugation used then as here, when the Torah tells us that Adam and Eve hear the voice of God walking in the garden: “Kol Hashem Elohim mit’halech ba’gan… (Bereishit 3:8).” Adam and Eve have just eaten from the tree of knowledge of good and evil and they hide from God and He calls out to them, “Ayeka – where are you?” (Bereishit 3:9).
Rabbi Fohrman asks why God asks a question to which He obviously knew the answer, and he suggests the answer lies in this week’s Parasha. In Bechukotai, God promises that if we keep His laws He will walk with us, as Rashi continues, quoting from the Midrash, “Atayel imachem beGan Eden – I will stroll with you in the garden of Eden.”
Rabbi Fohrman surmises that the Rabbis discerned the parallels between the garden of Eden story and the promise in Bechukotai, and they are hinting that we are being offered a second chance. He says, “Way back in the original garden things didn’t work out so well, we didn’t really get a chance to stroll with G-d lovingly, with a great sense of togetherness in the garden, instead we were crouching and hiding after having eaten from the forbidden fruit. We heard G-d walking alone in the garden. But it doesn’t have to be that way, G-d doesn’t have to walk alone in the garden, He can walk with us. That’s: Vehit’halachti betochechem – we’ll stroll together in the garden. We have a chance to do it right this time around.”
Rabbi Fohrman continues by exploring this conjugation “hit’halech” which is the reflexive form of the root “halach“. If halach means “he went,” “hit’halech” would mean “He took himself for a walk.” But, he adds, reflexive verbs can also connote some sort of mutual action that two people do together, as in the case of Jacob and Esau in their mother’s uterus, where the Torah tell us, “Vayitrotzetzu habanim bekirbah – the sons struggled with each other within her.” (Bereishit 25:22). In modern Hebrew, Rabbi Fohrman notes, there are examples of this, as in lehitkatev – to correspond, and lehitkasher – to call someone on the phone, two people engaging mutual activity, expressed in the reflexive form.
So in the light of this, Rabbi Fohrman re-examines the episode in the garden, and perceives a hint of tragedy in the words. “Because right before we hear about G-d being Mit’halech in the garden something had gone wrong, the people had eaten from the forbidden fruit and they were hiding from G-d. How do we understand the Hitpa’el? It wasn’t that G-d was taking Himself on a walk, it would seem to imply mutual action, but it wasn’t mutual. When G-d was walking, Adam and Eve were hiding, and that’s the tragedy. It’s like a broken form of Hitpa’el here, it’s like G-d was inviting them, here I am, I’m ready to stroll with you, but where are you, you’re not here? Now we understand the question Ayecha – where are you, weren’t we supposed to be walking now?”
He notes also that there are two Hebrew words for “where”. The usual word is “eifo“. The second word, however, “ayei” is never a simple request for location, but rather when something more is being questioned. In the Akeda, Isaac asks his father, “Here is the firestone, and here is the wood, but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” (Bereishit 22:7) and he uses the word “ayei” for where, and this is understood to mean that the awful suspicion might be dawning on him, that he is intended to be the offering. Rabbi Fohrman cites another example from Psalms, (115:2) in the phrase, “Ayei Elokeihem” – when other nations look at Israel and ask, “Where is their God?” – they are not questioning His physical whereabouts, rather wondering why He seems to have deserted His people, and is not involved with them.
So he concludes, “It’s the same thing back in the garden with the original Ayei. G-d wasn’t saying, where are you, I can’t figure out where you are. No, it was a poignant cry. We were supposed to go walking together. How come you’re not here with Me? It is the original lament in the Torah.” Rabbi Fohrman notes the letters of “Ayecha” as first spelled in the episode in the garden are an anagram of the word “Eicha” – the opening word of the Book of Lamentations. He says, “The tragedy of sin in the garden is the tragedy of Ayei, where did you go? It’s the tragedy of missing a joyful moment of togetherness with G-d, the chance to stroll with Him, a chance – G-d promises – that will be re-created in Israel, where one more time we will have that opportunity, if we can only muster the strength to avoid hiding and to seize the opportunity of companionship with the Divine being offered to us.”
*The Torah Commentary of the Sefat Emet, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Gur, translated and interpreted by Rabbi Arthur Green.