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Bechoukotai: Wisdom carved in my heart

Here we are, closing another cycle. This shabbat mevarechim (in which we bless), as we will welcome the upcoming month of Sivan, with Parashat Bechukotai, we close the book of Vayikra.

This book of the “calling” taught us, after we were freed from Egypt, to build. 

We built a space for the divine to dwell within us, we made clothes for our priests, we built an altar and all its utensils to bring offerings, and more generally, we built four ourselves a society, a religion and rituals, with rules, decrees and laws.

Does following rules take our freedom away?

Throughout the book of Vayikra, we saw the formation of a more consistent system of mitzvot (commandements). These are divided in three categories: edim, mishpatim and chukim.

If Edim (testimonies, like the Shabbat or Pessach), are usually pleasant cultural rituals and Mishpatim (laws of justice, such as the prohibition of murder) feel like common good sense,,Chukim, decrees, can feel at first more difficult to understand: their raison d’être comes from their source: the authority of the Divine. 

They don’t need to be logical. They are just authoritative. One archetypal chok is the strange ritual of the Red Heifer- a cow sacrificed to purify us from death.

A chok, from Mishlei (proverbs 8.29), is a form of “limit”. In a way, it means taking upon ourselves to accept limits to our own rationality, to our own free will.

And this can be difficult to accept, at a time of critical thinking and autonomy of the Self.

How do we live a meaningful, mature, intelligent religious life, without losing our sense of  agency?

The inner way to walking in Life’s rules

Our parasha opens on these words: “If you walk in my decrees” (vayikra 26.3)

אם בחקתי תלכו

But what does it mean to walk in god’s statutes?

In his commentary of this verse, the Chasidic Master Mei Ha shiloach points to a paradoxical way in which our true autonomy can express itself in relation to chukim- statutes.This way is a twofold spiritual path. One happens through  inquiry; the other one, I call a “direct path”.

The first level, he says, happens through “hitbonenut”: contemplation, or inquiry.

Following the steps of Ibn Pakuda in Duties of the Heart, and later, more famously, of Maimonides in the second chapter of the Mishne torah, reb Leiner reminds us that if we were to take a moment to really contemplate the Power of Life Source, we would be in awe, and we would just want to walk by its rules.

Think about it. Contemplate, for a moment, how nature works: the miracle of your breath, your heart, lungs our blood vessels; the generosity of the ozone, the cycle of water, the bounty of the trees, the intelligence of the ecosystem… 

When we take just a moment to really contemplate Life, we necessarily feel irah -both deep reverence- respect, and awe- “radical amazement” as Heschel called it,  for Life Source.

And this awe, the Mei HaShiloach continues, will naturally lead us to want to Torah- our “moreh derekh”, our guide for the journey.

Why is that? Because when we trust, we have no problem following rules.

When I go mountain climbing, I’ll happily do what I’m told, for my own security and enjoyment.

When I go on a meditation retreat, I will happily abide by the rules.

They won’t feel like they take away my agency; they feel like they are here to support me and help me grow beyond my ego.

This is how a detour by logic and reflection can help me relate to chukim in a way that feels connecting and empowering.

But there is also a more direct path.

Humility as the direct path

This path, he says,  consists in simply embodying just one midah- one quality: humility

אך אחר שהגיע האדם למדות ענוה יכיר זאת כהרף עין

 “But if you achieve the quality of Anavah, humility, you will know Yirah in the blink of an eye

When I am humble, I don’t need any inquiry to know Life is greater than me.

I see how small I am, how so totally dependent I am on it- and this feels beautiful.

Think about it for a minute.

Perhaps even close your eyes, after you read the next sentence:

This breath doesn’t come from me.

This heart, lungs, stomach, work together to keep me alive without me having to even think about it.

Water falls from the sky and springs from the earth to keep me alive. The earth brings plants, and the trees gives fruit, to nourrish me.

And so on.

I am not the source of my own life. In fact, I am nothing much.

Just an organism alive like million others, nourished every instant by the Source of Life.

All I do is receive.

Take a breath to appreciate that. Isn't that a relief?

When I am humble for an instant, I can immediately feel a deep Awe/ reverence (irah) for Life-Source. 

And for the Mei haShiloach, this personal, immediate experience, is the most direct path via which I end up walking naturally according to Life’s Ways:

וזה אם בחקותי תלכו שיהיה חקותי נחקק בלבותיכם.

And this is “ if you walk in My laws (chukim)”: My laws will be carved (chakuk) in your hearts.

A path of moral autonomy

When I am humble, the right thing to do speaks to me from within.

This is “Lecha amar libi” - לְךָ֤ ׀ אָמַ֣ר לִ֭בִּי “for you my heart speaks” in the Psalms (27.8).

In the jewish tradition, the heart is much more than the site of emotions. 

It is a source of consciousness, mindfulness, and intentionality.

This is the direct path the Mei ha shiloach describes to us: when we are humble enough, wisdom is engraved in our hearts, and we don’t need external rules to remind us.

In truth, this is part of the trajectory of a healthy human development:

In the beginning, small children are framed by rules they don’t necessarily understand. And perhaps they don’t need to, because they can’t. At this stage, they just learn to respect a “do this, don’t do that.”

When they grow a little they are able to understand that there is a rationale beyond authority. That there is a reason why they can’t have a third cookie, and why they have to clean their room before going to play.

And then growing up, and becoming autonomous- in the case of a successful education, is when one doesn’t need anymore to be told what to do.It all comes from within.

Staying humble in the midst of a Global War of Opinions

Today, humility is lacking all around.

I look around, and I see as much ignorance as self-righteous claims. I see most of our Institutions, most of the legally legitimate Sources of Authority, crumble under the evidence of their own moral corruption. 

So it goes for the current Israeli  Prime Minister and his Ultra-right coalition, and so it goes for the former President of the United States, who was just found guilty by a civilian Jury. 

So it goes for the UNRWA, once thought  to be a respectable institution designed to support Refugees, and so it goes for the International Criminal Court of Justice, who cannot be respected after delivering a similar arrest warrant for the Israeli leaders as for the in-hiding chiefs of a Terror Organization.

Just as we are reflecting on Divine laws, this week again in the world, in the midst of what has become a Global War of Opinions since October 7th, we are faced with the utter failure, not just of the Public Opinion, but of Ruling Institutions.

In truth, this is nothing new. 

Moral corruption walks hand in hand with human nature. Unless we dedicate time to serious self-examination and inner ethical work, it is very hard to extirpate ourselves from it.

Can we dream about it, though? After all, we are still in the Counting of the Omer, this Period of inner Purification of our midot (character traits).

Can you imagine if each of us humans took a moment, right now, far away from the world of opinions, to simply listen inside?

What if, from time to time, we all humbled ourselves enough to recognize that, in a world ruled by agendas, propaganda and opinions, none of us really knows.

What if we took some time to quiet down and listen inside?

Then maybe our hearts would guide us again.

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Jun 02
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Thank you Mira for your beautiful teaching ( please note an error in information referring to the “President of the United States” rather then the “former” president. It is an important differentiation. Thank you dear Mira 🙏

Mira Weil
Mira Weil
Jun 04
Replying to

Thank you so much. Totally true and apologies. It has just been changed.

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