Parshat Bechukotai: Once is Not Enough
We no sooner read the last pesukim of Devarim on Simchat Torah, concluding the public reading of Torah, that we turn our attention to the very first pesukim of Breishit and start the cycle of reading and re-reading Torah over again. Just as we had the year before, we once again begin to read the very same pesukim and the very same parshiyot from the very same Torah. Same as last year and the year before and the year before that.
Or does it?
It is true that the Torah does not change but I do! I am a year older. I have experienced a year of joys, of sadness, of changes. Those I love have likewise changed, changing me even more. I have studied dapim of Talmud. I have read commentaries. I have been introduced to new insights.
I read and hear and study Torah with new eyes and ears! For me, the Torah is enlarged and refreshed! The same words and pesukim I have read and heard before now have ever more insightful meaning for me.
It is perhaps for this reason that, when learning the weekly sedra, we are instructed, “shnayim mikra v’echad Targum” – to read each verse twice, once is not enough!, and then to read the translation and commentary.
Parshat Bechukotai begins, “If you follow My decrees (b’chukotai) and observe My commandments (mitzvotai) and perform them…” In his commentary, Rashi notes that since we are already told, “v’es mitzvotai tishmeru” (observe My commandments) then the opening clause, “im b’chukotai telechu” (if you follow My decrees) cannot refer to observance of the mitzvot; that would be merely redundant. So then, Rashi wonders, what is meant here by im b’chukotai telechu? Rashi teaches that we are being instructed to “sh’tiheyu ameilim b’Torah”, to toil in Torah.
Generally, chukim refers to mitzvot that have no discernible rationale; they are followed because God has commanded them. But this understanding of the term exists only when contrasted with mishpatim – rational or understandable mitzvot. When “mitzvot” is used, as it is in this pasuk, it refers to all varieties of mitzvot. In other words, chukim in this pasuk does not refer to commandments with no rationale. Rashi explains that, in this context, chukim refers specifically to Torah study or, “toiling in Torah.”
Kli Yakar agrees and amplifies Rashi’s understanding by teaching that such “toil” should be engaged at “set times” and on a regular basis. This is, of course, a powerful directive. But the call to learn and study, even with consistent rigor, is hardly unique to Jews. Why would consistent study be considered a chok?
The Ohr HaChaim comments extensively on the parsha’s first pasuk. He draws a connection between chok and Torah toil by focusing on the repetitive nature of the study. The connection, he teaches, lies in the obligation to study that which one has previously studied, even those things already well known to him!
How contrary to our usual way of thinking! In general, we learn things to accomplish something and then we move on to learn the next thing. Our learning is almost always “goal oriented”. In school, we learn in order to earn a grade or a degree. In our professional lives, we learn to accomplish a task, get a raise or a promotion. In our learning endeavors, we are always learning something new and moving forward. Here we are being told that our obligation is to study and learn that which we already know!
The lesson is clear. In our Torah toil, we are never “done” learning. As Ben Bag Bag exhorts, “Turn it over and turn it over, for everything is in it. Look deeply into it, and grow old with it, and spend time over it…” We are never “done” with our Torah learning for there is always more to learn – from the very same Torah that we already know!
God has decreed that man learns and forgets; that we not retain all that we previously learned, just so that we should always need to come back to that which we have already learned so our enthusiasm for Torah learning never grows old but is ever renewed and rekindled.
We can never “know it all”. Such knowledge is reserved for the One God, the Source of all knowledge.
After the prayer in which we ask Hashem to “sweeten the words of Your Torah in our mouth” we recite a prayer of Modim wherein we emphasize the differences between those who engage in Torah study and those who do not. One difference is that we toil and receive reward, while they toil and do not receive reward.
But what is this reward? Did we not assert that Torah toil is not “goal oriented”? Could not a reward be misconstrued to be an end or goal for our learning?
The Chofetz Chaim wondered similarly, How could we be rewarded for an unfinished task? Our learning is unending and yet we receive reward? Who ever heard of such a thing? Has a tailor ever been paid for an unfinished suit? A shoemaker for a pair of shoes never completed? A jeweler for a ring lacking a stone?
An artisan might work day and night, night and day to complete a task but if he falls short and fails to do what he intended is he rewarded? Of course not. The customer is not interested in effort, only results.
Torah toil turns this understanding on its head. The command b’chukosai telechu, to toil in Torah, exhorts the effort, not the result for the result is impossible. Study! Even if the study is not complete, or the content not fully understood, the reward is assured. We are rewarded for our toil, not our “result”!
Our toil is rewarded because it is the toil itself which is the reward! Our toil is to review and return – time after time after time – to that which we have not fully understood. Repeat the words. You have learned the words. Delve in to it, turn it over and over and over again. The words teach new lessons, fresh lessons, astonishing insights. That is the power and mystery of Jewish learning – you can never get a degree because you are never done! There is never a “completed product.” The reward is to understand more this time than last time. More.
Jewish learning is to be a Talmid Chochom for sure but always a Talmid! Learning Torah is a lifelong endeavor. No B.A., M.A., or Ph.D. marks the conclusion of our study. We learn and continue learning. We learn because we cannot help but forget and so we must learn anew even those things we thought we once knew.
Chazara. Review. Learn and learn anew.
In Shulchan Aruch HaRav (Hilchos Talmud Torah 2:3) we read, “Thus, even in our times, when all of Torah has been transcribed and recorded, and [even if one forgets] he can always look it up in its source, he does not fulfill his obligation of ve-shinantam, since were one to ask him, he would have to hesitate and look it up and would not be able to answer immediately…”
Even if, he writes, this means that one will not be able to learn as much new material, so be it, as Chazal say (Avos 2), “It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but nor are you absolved from trying.”
This is how Torah was studied in the Talmudic era: They would start out learning only two or three Mishnayos or Beraysos in a week, which they would then review more than one-hundred times.
R’ Chiya bar Abba said in the name of R’ Yochanan, What is the meaning of that which is written (Mishlei 27:18), “He who guards the fig tree shall eat from its fruit?” Why are the words of Torah likened to a fig tree? Just as a fig tree – every time one handles it, he finds more ripe figs, so too with the words of the Torah; every time a person studies them he finds in them new flavour. (Gemara Eiruvin 54b)
Anyone who is on the cusp of a disease that robs them of their memory finds himself terrified. He wants desperately not to forget. Like him, we cannot help but forget. So, we toil! For we should all be terrified of forgetting even an iota of what we’ve learned from studying Torah.
Yet we do. We forget. We relearn. We study. We learn anew.