The Opposing Poles Of Jewish Law


With three words, “im bechukotai telechu,” God appeals to His children to accept and “walk” in his ways. But in these simple words are two opposing ideas: on one side, there is human movement and progress; on the other are chukkim, or laws — abstract, eternal, and fixed.

Like Abraham, every Jew is invited to “walk before” God on a path, marked out partially by Divine mandate but also by a more human, variable measure. As the Ishbitzer, a 19th-century rebbe, puts it, for us “to walk in His ways” necessitates a transposition of ordinances from cold stone tablets to the warmth of the heart.

In Hebrew, chok translated as “statutes,” denotes something “engraved” into hard, durable material, whereas mitzvah is associated with the word “chisel” or “sculpt,” serving as a specific link between man and God. While mitzvah often refers to a physical act, a chok, or chukkim, are more abstract and may be taken as the Torah in its entirety. Mitzvot often come with a rational appeal, while chukkim are accepted on faith, something the Ishbitzer finds liberating in that it frees in us tremendous creative powers.

This week’s parsha begins on a positive note, laying out the rules and blessings of what is essentially a contract between God and His people. For example, “God will give you rain in due season.” What is “rain in due season” but a material reward, promising fruitfulness, prosperity, good health, security in our land? The Berditchever Rebbe tells us that these blessings are only ancillary consequences of any good we may do, setting up physical conditions conducive to doing more, as in the saying, “mitzvah goreret mitzvah,” one good deed generates another, transforming the entire personality of the world.

But what about the negative? The notion that the sufferings of Jewish history are punishments commensurate with our conduct sits uneasily with a contemporary outlook.

The graphic detailing of curses that are only too prescient of our history, and the apparent moral slant on them, may repel us from the entire project. “And your carcasses will fall on your lifeless abominations!” Can this possibly be God talking? So disconcerting is this reading of rebuke that congregants avoid being called to the Torah, lest some of its negativity cling to them. Nor does it help that the Zohar Chadash tells us that hidden in the curses is the combined metaphor of a powerful king and a strict but loving parent.

Nevertheless, on a basic level, our commitment or neglect of the deal does have consequences: “If you will not listen to Me and walk contrary with Me, I, too, will act contrary with you.”

A 16th-century kabbalist tells us that in our world, God has turned Himself into a kind of shadow or automatic reflective image, and it is up to us to be the active partner. If you smile, it smiles; if you weep, it reflects back tears. So is God, just as you are present with Him, so is He present with you, says the Baal Shem Tov: “Whatever man does, the shadow imitates; so does the Creator behave with you.”

When we learn that sometimes redemption is permitted to emerge only out of the greatest evil, or that the curses outlined here contain in them the greatest blessing, some of us are outraged. Yet we must acknowledge that precisely this mystical take expresses a deep truth about how the world works.

Usually, individuals do not receive their desserts in this world. Frequently, as in the biblical narrative of the deaths of Moses, of Aaron’s two sons, and the Talmudic tale of the Ten Martyrs, the better the person is, the greater the suffering, paying off a more general evil. In the Talmud, when Moses protests the cruel martyrdom of Rabbi Akiva, he is peremptorily told by God to hold his peace: “That was the idea that came to mind when I created My world!”

In the Targum, chukkim is translated as “decrees” — God’s laws, frequently to do with ritual, that Jews may not question. In Midrashim where God is somehow implicated, however, chukkim are interchangeable with gezerot, the often tragic destiny that plays out as living Torah in Jewish history, which is the darker side of the covenant.

Almost two millennia ago, the Talmud Yerushalmi [Megilla 3:7] taught that God Himself protests that there is something not right with a Torah reading in which His children are cursed while blessings are made in God’s Name. Only by quoting Psalm 91:15 does God resolve this contradiction: “I will be with him in his distress.”

The Torah warns that at some time God will be forced to “hide his face” from us [Devarim 31:18]. Although it is generally believed that signs of mourning are forbidden in the presence of royalty, this “hiding of God’s face” from Jewish suffering is only a formality for public consumption. When He retreats to his inner chamber,  He “wraps himself around in His tallit.” From its innermost folds He gives way to an empathy so intense that it is inconsolable [Chagiga 5b].

Although the Zohar insists that “all the promises and words of consolation for Israel are written in these curses,” there has been too much tragedy in Jewish history for us to be easily convinced. What we may absorb, perhaps, is a suggestion found in Kabbalah that, after opting for Creation, the Almighty is himself limited by His own decrees.

Freema Gottlieb is a writer and lecturer. Her book, “Lamp of God: A Jewish Book of Light,” has recently been released on Amazon Kindle.

Candlelighting, Readings:

Shabbat Candles: 8:02 p.m.

Torah: Leviticus 26:3-27:34

Haftarah: Jeremiah 16:19-17:14

Havdalah: 9:03 p.m.