Behukotai 5774: Walking Together with God

[Written and originally posted for the JTS Torah Commentary]

I saw a strange thing on my walk to minyan the other morning. At a quiet side street with no cross-traffic in sight, a woman stood still, waiting for the walk sign. All around her people bustled by, peeking quickly to make sure no truck was barreling down the street before crossing, but she patiently waited for the light to indicate that it was her turn to walk. She wasn’t setting an example for a toddler, and she didn’t look like a tourist. This woman was content to obey a sign that others, myself included, blithely ignored. Sidewalk Scene

If you don’t live in New York City, perhaps you won’t find my story strange, but let me assure you, one doesn’t see this every day. Yet with pedestrian casualties a stubbornly persistent statistic in our city, perhaps more of us should heed her example. I am often alarmed by people staring intently into their phone screens as they cross busy Broadway. We could all stand to pay more attention to how and when we walk.

Walking is a recurrent metaphor in Parashat Behukotai. In the first 10 verses, the verb to walk occurs three times. If you walk in God’s statutes, then many blessings will follow, culminating in God walking in your midst and causing you to walk upright. In the next, darker section, God predicts that the people will walk stubbornly (keri—an obscure word that could also mean “casually” or “coolly”), and in response, God too will walk stubbornly with them. What is it with all this walking? 

Elsewhere in the Torah, we have read quite a bit about walking. Enoch is a saintly figure who “walked with God and then he was no more, for God took him” (Gen. 5:24). Noah is praised for walking with God (6:9). Abraham is the biggest walker of them all, covering many hundreds of kilometers in his dusty sandals. God commands him to “get up, walk around the land” (13:17), and “walk before me and be blameless” (17:1). In Exodus, God walks before Israel in a pillar of cloud, and in Deuteronomy, Moses promises that “God walks before you; he will not release you nor will he abandon you.” Prophets such as Jeremiah are told to walk on God’s command, and the Psalmist pleads with God, “show me your paths, that I might walk in your truth” (86:11). The people of Israel are expected to walk to Jerusalem on pilgrimages three times annually, and Moses famously teaches them to speak of their love for God “when you sit in your homes and when you walk on the way.” Furthermore, the prophet Micah sums up the religion of Israel as “walking humbly with your God.”

Is it any wonder that Judaism came to associate its method of religious practice with walking? The Rabbis created a normative world known as halakhah (“the walk”), and the Sage Ulla claimed that since the Temple was destroyed, the Holy One has no place in the world except for the four cubits of halakhah (BT Berakhot 8a). This could sound claustrophobic, but unlike the Temple, the halakhah is not enclosed on four sides. It has boundaries, but its origins stretch back to the mythical beginning of time, and its destination remains beyond our imagination. What matters about the Jewish walkway is not endlessly broad, but rather has defined edges that lend it coherence.

I like to think of the four cubits of halakhah as the width of the path. A cubit is said to be somewhere between 18 and 24 inches long, so a four-cubit path is six to eight feet wide. It is broader than a trail, but narrower than a proper road. It is just right for two people to walk side by side, engaged in an animated conversation as they cross the countryside.

This metaphor of walking and talking is a beautiful way to think of Jewish life. Our religion has seldom emphasized solitary meditation. The image of a monk in a cell staring at a candle and breathing deeply is not immediately recognizable as a Jewish ideal, though there is certainly room for such spiritual practices in our religion. Walking on a path together is a social, dynamic metaphor. And if you imagine, as our portion does, that God is available to join you for a walk, then religious life becomes an adventure.

I have the privilege of walking together with remarkable students every week at JTS. As we come to the end of our academic year, I will have the extraordinary honor of ordaining this year’s new rabbis. I feel blessed to have walked with them for a few fruitful years of their lives. Next week, we will walk together yet again at Commencement, but then our paths will diverge. I cannot fathom where they will all journey in the coming decades, but I am confident that they will take the Torah with them, bringing its message of holiness to communities near and far. Mazal tov to our graduates; may they walk with God, and may God walk with them, keeping them upright and faithful for many years to come.

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