One of my favorite things to do in my teens was to go through a cupboard in my parents’ room where my mom stored all our childhood keepsakes. From macaroni necklaces to construction paper birthday cards, my parents kept a small collection of these mementos that told the story of our childhood. Among these were our elementary school report cards. These stock card documents, hand written looked quite different from today’s downloadable PDF files. But more than their physical construct, they differed in another very important aspect. There was a column for every course with a letter grade for “effort”. I can still hear my mother reminding me: “I don’t care what that final column says, there just better be an ‘A’ for effort”. The message was clear: as long as I was trying my best, my parents were satisfied. They held firm to the belief that if their children made the effort, the results would follow. But let’s be clear, the effort better be there! This begs an interesting question: what good is the effort if you never accomplish anything? From the Little Engine that Could to Star Wars’ Yoda, our culture is rich in quotes, anecdotes and stories of trying hard, pushing through, making the effort and putting your best foot forward. But let’s be real: if the space shuttle crashes because someone made a mistake in their calculations, no one will care how hard NASA engineers tried, right? In the face of such a statement, one can easily forget that generations of engineers before them toiled endlessly for the crazy dream of reaching the heavens.
This week we read the closing parasha of Sefer Vayikra. Parashat Bechukotai begins with a promise: “If you will walk in My statutes, I will give you rains in their time, the land will yield its produce, and the tree of the field will give forth its fruit” (Vayikra 26:3-4). The rewards for “walking” in Torah are great: rain, abundant crops, produce, sustenance and peace. A little further, the text continues with the dire consequences for one who does not follow the mitzvot. What does it mean to “walk” in Torah?
The wording of this promise is the source of much discussion. To begin with, what does it mean to “walk” in Torah? Rashi explains that “walking in Hashem’s statutes” means to labor in Torah, “toiling” in Torah. Since walking implies movement from place to place, a laborious activity, this teaches us that we should be labouring in Torah. To “toil” is not the same as to “work” or to “achieve”. Toil is defined as “laborious effort” (Meriam-Webster), it is about the means not the end. Therefore the emphasis here is on the effort rather than on the results. It is not enough to sit back and read the Torah like a book, rather, that we should pace and ponder every bit of the Torah and never be satisfied with not knowing what, how or why something is done. For this, the Torah explains, the rewards are bountiful (Ressler, 2017).
The Chabbad Alter Rebbe points out that “walking” suggests movement, progression from place to place. This refers not to movement on the ground, but rather movement from one level to the next. In fact, the prophet Zechariah declares that while Angels can only “stand”, souls can walk (Zechariah 3:5). Angels are incapable of transcending who they are; they are limited to the capabilities G-d gave them. Only man is capable of spiritual growth, with the potential to rise higher than the angels. We have within us the potential to keep “walking”” beyond our limitations and exceed even ourselves (Tiferet Yonatan).
Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb outlines the steps required to “toil” or “walk” in Torah learning. The first step is diligence or hatmada. One must invest the time for consistent study. Second, is struggle, the work and challenge of acquiring of the skills required to move forward. Third is learning from our mistakes. The Talmud teaches that “a person can only study Torah successfully if he makes errors in the process”. Next, is questioning, actively engaging with the learning, comparing, contrasting, calling on critical thinking skills to analyze what is being studied. The fifth step, he explains, is about seeking a personal connection or meaning in what one is studying. Lastly, to truly toil in Torah learning, one must teach it to others. As Maimonides explains, one has not fulfilled the mitzvah of Torah study until one has shared his learning with others (The Person in the Parasha, 2016).
Finally, the word for statutes used in the Torah is “chok”, meaning “statute” or “decree”. However, the root of the word “bechukotai” is actually “hakak”, meaning to engrave. “bechukotai” thus literally means engraved. The Ba’al Hatanya shares the following: “….then the Mitzvot will become etched upon you [the chukim will be chakuk]. That which distinguishes the quill/parchment, the sefer Torah, from the hewn stone, tablets, is its ‘etchedness’, i.e. the degree of identification of the medium with its message. In the former, the ink still retains its independence whilst in the latter; the etched writing becomes the very essence of the tablet itself”. We must therefore “etch the words of Torah upon the tablets of our heart-a bond” (Mishlei 3:3). When effort is put forth in any endeavor, we engage more strongly, we bond and eventually, internalize what we are working towards-it becomes a part of who we are.
In Pirke Avot we read: “According to the effort is the reward”, begging the question whether accomplishment is rewarded or is effort, even without success, rewarded? The Chafetz Chaim points out that there is no mitzvah to become a “lamdan”, a scholar, or a “gaon”, a Torah genius. There is, however, a mitzvah to “toil in Torah”. Learning Torah is not only about accumulating knowledge, it is about forging a relationship with Hashem. There is much to learn from this parasha that we can apply to all aspects of our lives. This is a clear prescription against the all or nothing approach to life that so many of us embrace. Well, if I cannot do it perfectly, what’s the point? We must learn to value movement towards a goal as much as reaching the goal itself.
This is all reminiscent of the old adage that “Life is a journey, not a destination” (Emerson). It is the quality and effort of that journey that is most important and will yield the greatest reward. If we invest ourselves in our relationships, in our marriage, in our children, we form a great attachment and bond, and the rewards are many. As a rabbi once said, for a parent to stand under the chuppah with their child, they must first toil for years with diapers, scrapes, tantrums, teens, struggles and more, but the bond formed from that investment of ourselves in our children, reap the greatest of rewards. Who knew? Mom was right: A in effort is indeed most important!
Dr. Laura Segall
Head of School