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Toiling in Torah

Behar-Bechukotai (Leviticus 25-27 )


"If you walk in My statutes..." (Leviticus 26:3)

Walking in God's statutes, say the Sages, refers to toiling in Torah. Upon that toil, God's blessing is contingent. And so, too, do the curses follow from the failure to strive in the study of Torah.

The Sages (Talmud – Nedarim 81a) tell us that the Land of Israel was lost and the Jewish people were exiled because they failed to make the proper blessing prior to learning. Ran, quoting Rabbeinu Yonah, explains that the blessing is on the toil and effort that one must put into Torah, and when that is lacking, churban (destruction) results.

The first question that arises is: How is effort in Torah learning hinted to in "walk[ing] in My statutes"? Since when does "walking" imply toil and effort?

The Sages tell us that the Torah is an elixir of life to those who approach it as "rightists," and a poison to those who approach it as "leftists." Rashi defines "rightist" as one who uses his strong right arm to delve into the Torah and discover its secrets (Talmud – Shabbos 88b). One must delve deeply into the Torah to uncover its true meaning, to discover God, Who is the soul of the Torah. Without effort and toil, one gains at best a superficial understanding of Torah, which, in turn, leads to a superficial and shallow observance of its Mitzvot. On the other hand, one who exerts all his efforts gains the fear of Heaven that is the very essence of Torah.

We are exhorted to literally walk after God, to walk in His footsteps. Toiling in Torah is discovering the footsteps of God, the immutable laws of spiritual nature that contain the essence of God's attributes. By subjugating his mind to the demands of the Torah, and rejecting all that is superficial and simplistic, the student of Torah finds God in the Torah and is able to emulate Him.

The antithesis of toiling in Torah is "If you will not listen to Me" – if you fail to hear God in the Torah. You think you possess Torah, but it is Torah which is empty of God. That type of Torah can be easily distorted and lead even to idolatry, immorality and murder.


The prophetic warning concerning our future failings contains the following sequence of events: God will send an enemy to invade the Land of Israel, and the Jews will gather within the protective walls of Jerusalem. The encircled Jews will fall prey to a plague from which many will die. Since it is prohibited to leave a corpse in Jerusalem, the bodies will have to be taken out the city, and in this manner the people will he delivered into the hands of the enemy (see Rashi to Leviticus 26:25)

This sequence is at first glance astounding. The prohibition of leaving a corpse in Jerusalem is Rabbinic. Even had it been a Torah law, the danger to life involved in burying outside the walls would have taken precedence over the rule that burial is forbidden in Jerusalem. Another problem: the generation the Torah is describing is one in which murder, idolatry and immorality were rampant. Would people steeped in such crimes risk their lives to fulfill a Rabbinic law?

But that is just the point of the rebuke. When one studies Torah superficially, one's perspective is necessarily fragmented and distorted and his emphasis will be askew. What he will be lacking is a view of Mitzvot as part of a totality and in the light of the totality.

A superficial view of Torah can lead to a disproportionate emphasis on even those things which are in fact of the greatest importance in the Torah's view, such as the holiness of Jerusalem. That holiness, however, not only does not mandate that one give up his life to avoid any corpses remaining in Jerusalem; it expressly forbids it, for the value of life takes precedence. Such distortions are inevitable without an overarching view of the unity of Torah.

The reward for toiling in Torah is harmony in the natural world culminating in the blessing of shalom, peace. Torah scholars, say the Sages, increase peace in the world by harmonizing the physical and spiritual worlds through their understanding of the Torah's secret foundation.

Conversely, the punishment of not toiling in Torah is a natural world gone haywire, where nothing goes right. That is the spiritual result of the failure to discover God's footsteps in the Torah and to walk in His ways – the consequence of viewing Torah as a series of unconnected "do's" and "dont's." Without toil, Torah is seen not as a way of life but as an intrusion into life. And the punishment is that one's life is intruded into by a multitude of curses.

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