Working the Walk: An Algorithmic Stroll: Behar-Bechukotai 5775 by Cantor Lipp

Mon, 05/18/2015 - 9:07am -- lcanfield

IF/THEN/ELSE/END IF

We don’t often think of computer code meshing with Torah but there is an inherent algorithmic logic to the second half of our double Torah portion, BeChukotai.

It's similar to an If/Then/Else algorithm. The short form of the algorithm goes as follows: IF we follow God’s laws, THEN we’ll be blessed. ELSE we’ll be cursed.

But that’s a reductive view; the code is far more complex. Both in quantity and quality the curses are far more extensive and intensive than the blessings. Also the language of the IF phrase at the beginning of the blessings caught the rabbis’ interest long ago. Here’s the Biblical code’s formulation: If you walk according to my decrees and keep my commandments to perform them... 

Rashi quotes an earlier midrashic source to let us know that ‘walking according to decrees’ can’t be simply following mitzvot or commands because that would be redundant. I’m not a computer programmer but I’m assuming there’s no necessity for stylistic repetition in computer code. Similarly, according to strict rabbinic tradition, Rashi assumes there is no unnecessary or stylistic repetition in the Torah. The purpose of that first phrase is that we need to exert ourselves to learn Torah SO THAT WE WILL BE ABLE TO keep God’s commands and perform them. THEN the blessings of good crops and security from our enemies will follow.

The curses, on the other hand, are introduced with a  far more complex and intricate IF/THEN formulation; it can’t be subsumed in a simple algorithmic ELSE:  IF you don’t listen to perform these commands, my statutes you abhor, my laws disgust you leading to your not performing them, breaking the bonds of the covenant THEN I’ll return the favor and break the covenant as well...

Clearly, earning the blessings is simpler task than activating the curses. Simple sins of omission will not force God to ‘Bring It’ as it were. That would require a far more proactive rejection of the system. Seforno, the Italian Renaissance exegete, opines that just as forcing oneself to vomit is unnatural, so is choosing to expel from ones throat the directives which are meant to bring only blessings into our lives, the blessings of habits that form the character of the Jewish people.

Further, it’s notable that the activation of blessings only require a specific commitment to the Chukot, the decrees or directives without obvious explanation; presumably if we are walking the walk with those commands, the rational Mishpatim will follow. 

There are certain mitzvot that cannot be understood as making intellectual sense except by walking them, by working them. Some commandments will ‘make no sense’ if approached only intellectually; they have to be experienced; they have to be walked.

The takeaways:

1. Activating blessings in our lives requires a certain commitment to maintaining habits that support those blessings.

2. Biblically speaking, one has to actively reject, intellectually and emotionally, the entire system of law to activate the curses.

3. One has to walk/experience the mitzvot, especially the non-rational ones, to understand and appreciate their value.

One can’t truly appreciate the totality of observing shabbat rules except by living them. That requires first preparing for the day so the cooking and cleaning are done to allow for a day of rest. The active avoidance of taking a true day of rest (and continuing to do so) will likely cause eventual physical, mental, emotional and, of course, spiritual deterioration. Finally, one cannot truly appreciate the positive effects of a shabbat experience merely intellectually. It has to be sung, davvened, eaten, loved, lived. 

Shabbat Shalom.

David Lipp

Hazzan