Walking the laws
One of my heroes, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, famously walked across the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, Alabama alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in order to help African-American voters achieve equal rights in that state. It was an act that put him in harm’s way, as prior walkers had been met with extreme violence from local police. Later, when discussing that moment, Heschel said that he felt like he was “praying with his feet.” I think he was demonstrating what it means to “walk” according to G-d’s laws.
Plenty of ink has been spilled about the differences between action and intention. When I read the first verse of this week’s Parsha, Behukotai, I was struck by the language in the first few words, which says that if the Children of Israel’s continue to holech (walk, go) according to G-d’s laws, they will be blessed. Why is this the verb of choice? What does it even mean to walk or go according to laws?
If ye walk in My statutes, and keep My commandments, and do them;
אִם־בְּחֻקֹּתַ֖י תֵּלֵ֑כוּ וְאֶת־מִצְוותַ֣י תִּשְׁמְר֔וּ וַעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֹתָֽם׃
I think that this verb is used to indicate that the laws described in VaYikra (which concludes with this chapter) are intended to guide our actions toward the creation of a society based on morality and conscientious concern. We don’t just keep or observe the laws, we use them to direct our actions and decisions. This is yet another way in which Judaism departs from some other religions – it is not solely concerned with the spiritual aspects of life, but suggests that one route to spiritual meaning lies in engaging thoughtfully in physical life.
In seeking meaningful, relevant ways of connecting to Judaism, many modern Jews have tended to emphasize the ethical aspects of the religion above and beyond the ritual. This bit of biblical wisdom reminds us that it is not easy to divide the two – it is often through enacting the rituals (walking according to the laws) that we find the guidance we need in order to act ethically. I would say that it is difficult to find Judaism truly relevant without engaging in at least some rituals.
Heschel understood that prayer, far from being limited to the recitation of particular words in a particular language, included standing up and acting ethically. I hope that we can all be inspired by his example.