If we walk on Gods suggested path, well reap the benefits


Leviticus 26:3–27:34

Jeremiah 16:19–17:14

There is a myth that the Inuit’s language has 14 words for snow, each precisely distinguishing the kind of white stuff out there. I checked it out: It turns out that the Eskimo language has about the  same number of distinct word roots referring to snow as English does.

I’m reminded of this when I look at how many words the Torah has for “law.” There are statutes (chukot), judgments (mishpatim), commandments (mitzvoth), edots (edicts) and more. And indeed, each one of them refers to different “law.”

The last Torah portion in Leviticus is “Bechukotay,” meaning “my laws.” The word “chukot” is traditionally understood to be reserved for Torah laws that have no rational explanation. For example, any group of people who wants a fair and manageable society can come up with “do not steal” and “do not murder.” However, while we try to explain rules like “not mixing wool and linen in the same garment” (the cloth might shrink in the laundry), “not eating pork” (they didn’t have refrigerators) or even “keeping the Sabbath” (a break is good for you), we can also agree that they all have little to nothing to do with creating a just and orderly society.

Those are chukim — laws that we really don’t know their “why.” Often times, it’s those laws that made the Jewish people distinct. Efforts to explain them have largely diluted, diminished and confused them (after all, we now do have refrigerators). But that’s a longer conversation.

The parsha opens with im bechukotai telchu — “If in [accordance with] my laws you shall walk … I will give your rains in their seasons” (Leviticus 26:3).

The use of “walk” here implies that taking a journey is critical to our growth; that “arrival” is secondary to “departure.” The modern Hebrew “tahalich” (process) and the word “halachah” (the often seemingly frozen in time Jewish law) also come from the same root as “lalechet,” depicting a path.

One of the gifts Judaism brought to the world is exactly this concept: Life is not cyclical and purposeless. We have an idea of “where we’re coming from and where we’re going to” (Pirkei Avot 3:1). Sincere, active effort in the right direction counts even if the task is incomplete. The question matters more than the answer; the dialogue more than its conclusion. Everything that happened to us is an opportunity to ask, to wonder, to see and to explore.

Reading on, we learn that the result of our walking the right path is that we’ll be given “our rain.” In direct contrast to Egypt, a land that was watered by a river and man-made system of sophisticated, consistent canals, the Children of Israel were taken to a land where — while their main livelihood will come from agriculture — the resources to making the most of it are dependent on Heavenly gifts. 

But geshem (rain) isn’t just about precipitation. The same root (g-sh-m) is used to make lehagshim (to fulfill). Thus the text suggests that “if in [accordance with] My laws you shall walk [heading in the right direction] … I will grant you your own fulfillment, from within and without. There will be materialistic rewards as well as spiritual ones.”

This opening sets the stage for the main part of this Torah portion, known as the blessing and the curses — or maybe better understood as “the consequences.” It’s a long list of what will happen if one follows God’s ways, and alternatively, a longer, fascinating and scary list of what happens if one goes against God.

There are those who walk out of the sanctuary when the tochechot (admonitions) are read and others where this section is read quietly, in a low voice whisper. The Chafetz Chayim criticized this practice, saying that whispering through this part is like mumbling a warning to someone who is embarking on a dangerous trip.

Indeed, that is another gift the Jews introduced to the world: We are not puppets on strings moved randomly by a capricious being. We have the ability to choose between good and evil. May we choose well and create for ourselves a life of fulfillment.

Michal Kohane
is the director of the Israel Center of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation. She has served in leadership roles throughout Northern California and holds advanced degrees in studies of Israel, psychology and education. Contact her at [email protected].