Once upon a time, a man who was no longer young stood and contemplated a stone blocking off a well.
A beautiful young woman came toward him, but he seemed not to notice.
Akiva, who came from a poor family of converts and had to work as a shepherd for a living, may have thought, I am 40 years old but have never learned a word of Torah.
Rachel instantly appreciated the wonderful person he was; his shyness made her like him all the more. As the daughter of Akiva’s employer, she took the initiative and came out with a daring proposal: “If I agree to be your wife, will you begin to learn Torah?”
“It’s too late. I’m as dumb as this rock.”
“I see things differently,” said Rachel. “This rock is magnificent. It has a wonderful shape. Little by little, it has been hollowed out by water, one drop after another.”
And so it began.
Everyone is surrounded by an invisible aura, which is expressed in a particular way of doing things — their “walk,” a signature lifestyle. Some of these habits often are regressive, even neurotic, but they serve as a comfort zone. Any suggestion of change is perceived as a threat. Adaptation must be gradual.
According to the Talmud [Megilla 28b], “Whoever studies a single Torah law every day is assured of the World to Come, as it says: ‘His are the ancient routes.’ Do not read ‘halichot’ [paths] but ‘halachot’ — ‘laws.’” The specific laws referred to here and the way they are reflected as a guarantee of an afterlife are both the more guttural-sounding “chukkim” and the gentler and more mellifluous “halichot”:
“If you walk in My statutes and observe My commands to do them . . . I shall give you rain” [Leviticus 33:3-4]. Unpacking this verse, the Portuguese Renaissance philosopher, royal treasurer, and Torah scholar Don Isaac Abarbanel informs us that in his day, gentile critics were quick to point out that both the laws and the blessings that ensue from their observance are only physical and this-worldly, with no higher spiritual association, and certainly with no promise of life after death. Such detractors were at the forefront of an anti-Semitic movement that deceives Jews unschooled in their own traditions.
Vayikra Rabbah [35:4] counters these allegations with the claim that the minutiae that go into observance of Torah law are the same lofty principles that govern creation: ‘“If not for my covenant [chukkim], I would not have staked out the ordinances of heaven and earth” [Jeremiah, 33:25]. Those are the same statutes with which I delineated the sun and the moon, the same with which I marked out the ocean as an everlasting ordinance; the same with which I marked out the deep. According to this midrash, God extends the analogy of the principles of creation with Torah law to include His covenant with the Jewish people.
Abarbanel and later Jewish commentators, notably the Berditchever Rebbe, insist that the earthly blessings that return from the observances referred to in our reading lay the groundwork for continued performance of mitzvot, and are not rewards at all. We should not perform them “like slaves who serve their Master in order to receive reward.” Quite different from what the usual translation would have us believe: “If you observe my commands, I will give you…” This parshah does not begin with blackmail! The Hebrew leaves us in no doubt that, as with the code of chivalry, the true pleasure of a love covenant comes from doing it for its own sake.
The Hebrew word “im,” usually translated as “if,” has a subtly different meaning in this context — not an option but an appeal. “If only you would walk in My ways and observe My commands.” Here the key word is “walk,” which in many Hebrew contexts means to ”tread a footpath” or “to become familiar with.”
After outlining the physical benefits of living by these guidelines, the text reveals the true nature of the reward: “I will set My Presence in your midst and walk among you.” In other words, “if you walk about in My harsh-seeming laws, I will forsake My High places and stroll in the Jewish street.” Relationship is what it is about.
The object pronoun “otam” is usually translated as a long form of “them.” We are bid to observe “them” (the commandments). However, an alternate vocalization, “itam,” “with them,” yields a startling new meaning: “If only you would walk in My ways, and observe My commandments to make (with) them!” What does it mean “to make (with ) them”? An extraordinary midrash suggests this ambiguity in the Hebrew is intentional, lending it a meaning that is breathtaking. “Whoever performs the commandments and walks in His ways is regarded as though they make the Most High. The Holy One, Blessed be He, says, “It is as if he had made Me.” By bringing out the latent “divine image” in one’s own humanity, we bring God’s Presence into this world. While the word “l’chakek, ” from which “chok,” or law, derives, means to carve or to hew, the root of the Hebrew for commandment, “mitzvah,” is “tzav,” similarly means to chisel or link. The graven image that is forbidden as idolatry in one context is precisely what God desires that we fashion in ourselves.
To perform these commands with each limb of one’s body is to carve out the Divine image in our world. There really is no higher art.
Freema Gottlieb is a writer and lecturer. Her book “The Lamp of God: A Jewish Book of Light” is available as a Kindle edition on Amazon.com. Her talks on the weekly Torah reading may be found on YouTube.
Light candles: 7:49 p.m.
Haftorah reading: 16:19–17:14
Shabbat ends: 8:55 p.m.