If you walk in My statutes, and keep My commandments, and you fulfill them…(Vayikra 26:3)
Six hundred thirteen precepts:
I do not know and keep them all;
and some of them I know and love
enacting them with care and joy
while others – I have not yet discerned
a way to make them mine.
But if I walk along this path
with softened heart and open mind
intent may yet develop into deed.
Parashat Bechukotai concludes the Book of Vayikra which contains more commandments in it than any of the other four books in the Torah. In this parasha, God promises that if the children of Israel keep His commandments, they will be rewarded with material prosperity and dwell securely in their land. But He also delivers a very disturbing and grim “rebuke,’ warning of exile, persecution and other curses that will befall them if they forsake their covenant with Him. An unusual word keri runs through this section of curses, and is found in this Parasha and nowhere else in the Tanach. “If you walk with Me with keri … then I will walk with you with keri.”
There are many interpretations of this word. Targum Onkelos reads it as “hard-heartedly”.
In his book Kedushat Levi, Rabbi Levi Yitschak of Berdichev notes on Parashat Bechukotai’s opening sentence that there seem to be some superfluous words, “If you walk in My statutes, and keep My commandments, and do them….” He wonders why the Torah does not simply say, “If you keep My commandments…” So Rabbi Levi Yitschak suggests we look at this verse in the light of a quote from the Talmud (Kiddushin 40a) “The Blessed Holy One ties good thoughts to deeds.” This is understood to mean that when we consider taking an action upon ourselves, God attributes the thought as though we had performed the deed. Rabbi Levi Yitschak expounds the theme, commenting that one who “walks” is understood to mean one who progresses spiritually. So he teaches that one who “walks” in the way of God’s statutes, and even just thinks about observing them, it is considered as though he has fulfilled them.
In his book, Partner in Holiness*, Rabbi Jonathan Slater says that this parasha is filled with blessings if we fulfill God’s commandments and curses if we don’t. He says, “It can be terrifying. The possibility of failure in our lives is so great. When we pay attention to the potential outcomes of our behavior, we can indeed witness the “destruction” and “exile” that may come in their wake. Further, we are aware of the question, how will we ever do all that is expected, let alone avoid all that is proscribed? Yet, what a relief! Levi Yitzhak offers us instead this unusual and redemptive lesson. Rather than focusing on what we have not done, he focuses on our positive intention , not even the good that we might do. Here is a wonderful way out, and up.”
Rabbi Levi Yitschak further notes that the word used to “keep” the commandments “tishmeru” comes from the same root Sh-M-R that appears when Jacob notices that his older sons are starting to hate Joseph (Bereishit 37:5) where it means he was beginning to be aware of what was going on. Here the Berdichever is inviting us to have an awareness of what is arising and of our deepest intentions that might at some point come to fruition. Rabbi Slater adds, “I have moved along my own spiritual path over the years, buoyed by Franz Rosenzweig’s idea of “not yet”**. I accept that there are commandments out there waiting for me yet to perform, but I have “not yet” been able honestly to take them on.” Rabbi Slater wonders whether this fits with the Berdichever’s teaching, and what happens if “not yet” becomes never, and how we might keep our intention alive so that we keep moving on.
In a commentary on Behar/Bechukotai from 2012, http://www.jtsa.edu/blessings-from-the-inside-out, Rabbi David Hoffman notes that it is frequently emphasized that in Judaism, what one does in the world is what matters, not what he/she thinks. He says, “The Torah demands we pursue a life rightly lived over beliefs rightly held. This argument underscores that the project of Torah is concerned with our behavior and not our internal life. Sinful might be a word that describes an act in Judaism, but it is not a word Jews would use to describe thoughts or feelings. A Jew is asked to take a leap of action rather than a leap of thought. The way to God comes by way of the mitzvah — a deed…”
Dr Hoffman says that he has always enjoyed this aspect of Judaism – that what seems to matter most in our relationships with the outside world and with others is what we do. Furthermore, this approach that emphasizes the mitzvah – the deed – “pushes us out of our heads and into the world.” Finally, he adds, “…selfishly, I also enjoy the minimal boundaries this approach places on my emotional and cognitive life. I am not asked to regulate my mental activity. My mind is free to wander where it likes, perhaps not guiltlessly, but certainly with great impunity.”
But, he continues, he finds this separation between deeds and thoughts problematic both religiously and psychologically. Rabbi Hoffman says, “While I continue to understand a certain privileging of deed over thought, and the ways in which deeds might actually bring us to a place of faith, removing our internal world from the religious conversation seems to belie a sophisticated understanding of the relationship between our mind and our behavior. Not only do thoughts create the context for behavior, but the more that scientists learn about the brain, the more they believe that our mental activity actually creates new neural structures. Consequently, “even fleeting thoughts and feelings can leave lasting marks on your brain, much like a spring shower can leave little trails on a hillside” (Hanson and Mendius, Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom [Oakland, California: New Harbinger Publications, 2009], 5). What happens in the mind changes the brain, both in temporary and in lasting ways. A practice of attention to and regulation of our thoughts is an integral part of the experience of other wisdom traditions and modern understandings of psychological growth. How can we, as Jews, simply ignore the mind in the religious experience?” He too brings the teachings of Rabbi Levi Yitschak. He suggests that the Berditchever’s interpretation of “If you walk in My statutes…” meaning “if you think about God’s ways” is teaching that the Torah here “expands its religious claim on the human being…Not only will the performance (faithful observation) of God’s commandments — actual deeds — bring blessings; the Torah also insists that the ways in which a person thinks and conceives of the world come under the purview of God, and offers us an additional means by which to experience blessings.” Rabbi Hoffman concludes, “In important ways, our thoughts program us to experience the world. Generous thoughts and constructive thinking actually create distinct neural pathways in the brain. Positive thoughts produce blessings, and negative thoughts take us down paths that move us farther away from God. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak argues that we can and must attempt to influence our conscious mental activity. Seen in this light, practicing compassion for oneself and others is a creative and religious behavior, even though it might not include a physical act. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak focuses our attention on the internal, and asks that we blur the boundary between thoughts and deeds in order to better appreciate the complex relationship between our internal and external lives.”
*A Partner in Holiness: Deepening Mindfulness, Practicing Compassion and Enriching Our Lives through the Wisdom of R. Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev’s Kedushat Levi
**[Rosenzweig]… did think that he would one day become a fully observant Jew, but believed in the gradual approach in which the observances slowly made their impact by “ringing a bell” for him. Typical of this approach is Rosenzweig’s answer to someone who asked him whether he wore tefillin [phylacteries]: “Not yet,” he replied.
(From an article by Rabbi Louis Jacobs) http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/franz-rosenzweig-and-the-founding-of-the-lehrhaus/