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The 'walk' and 'work' of Torah

In the Book of Leviticus we read:

If you follow my statutes and keep my commandments and observe them faithfully, I will give you your rains in their season, and the land shall yield its produce, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit. (Lev. 26:3-4; NRSV)

Most versions read: “If you follow my statutes...” However, the Hebrew verb is, literally, “walk”. What does this suggest: to walk in the Lord’s ways?

Is “walking” in the commandments of the Torah a more active, alert, responsive set of choices than “following”? This is the kind of questioning that arises in Jewish tradition, with its lively sense of enquiry and careful attention to the detail of the biblical text.

Let’s taste the insights of three Jewish thinkers from a wide range of periods in Jewish history.

We begin with the revered 11th century Torah scholar Rashi [1] and his sources.

When we read “If you follow my statutes”, we may think this refers to the fulfilment of the commandments. However, in the next breath the Scripture says, “and observe/keep my commandments”. Since the command to observe, keep or fulfil the commandments is already stated, what is the need for the phrase “If you follow my statutes”? What additional meaning does it convey? According to Rashi’s interpretation, the sacred text is telling us that one must toil (labour, work) in the study of Torah. Why? Since the Hebrew word for “follow” literally means “walk”, then this is a strenuous activity. And so, too, is the study of Torah. Further, you shall toil in the study of Torah in order to observe and fulfil the commandments.

For another opinion, we can listen to the Sefat Emet. This work, by a 19th century Chassidic rabbi, sees the act of "toiling" as going beyond the simple acquisition of Torah wisdom. Walking in God’s laws means to become so connected to the will of God that the presence of the Almighty becomes manifest on earth. Thy Kingdom come.

From Rabbi Hama, living in Galilee around 230 CE, we glean a further insight when he asks:

How is it possible for a person to walk in the path of the Shechinah [God’s Presence]? Has it not been stated that “the Lord your God is a consuming fire’”[see Deut. 4:24]? The meaning of walking in the Divine path is to walk in the path of the [ethical] character of the Holy One... As He clothes the needy [for Adam & Eve, Gen. 3:21] so shall you clothe the needy. [2]

Rabbi Hama continues:

As the Holy One visits the sick {Abraham in Gen.18:1] so shall you visit the sick.

As the Holy One comforts the mourners [Isaac after his father’s death in Gen.25:11] so shall you comfort mourners.

Here, the concept of “walking in God’s ways” underpins the human commitment to imitate the Divine by performing acts of loving kindness, also described as Imitatio Dei (“Imitation of God”). •

For reflection

“Toiling, labouring, walking…”

  • What kind of effort (walk/toil/labour) am I making to live according to God’s ways?

  • Notice how the Gospels use ‘work’ images, such as going into the vineyard, to describe one’s relationship to the Kingdom of God.

  • Does the ‘toil’ of discipleship at times seem ‘too much’, too demanding? What encouragement can we offer one another?

1. Rashi: French Torah scholar (1040-1105).

2. Babylonian Talmud: Sotah 14a.

Sources: Rashi: Commentary on the Torah, Vol. 3 (New York: Mesorah, 1999). The input of R. Pesach Schindler and notes of Br Jack Driscoll cfc are gratefully acknowledged.

© Teresa Pirola, 2013 Reproduction for non-commercial use is permitted with acknowledgement of website.


Light of Torah is a grassroots ministry arising from the Catholic community, encouraging Christian reflection on Torah with the help of Jewish insights. More...

The reflection above refers to Parashat Bechukotai (Lev. 26:3 - 27:34), the Torah portion read for this Sabbath in the Jewish liturgical cycle (in the disapora). Shabbat shalom!

Parashat Bechukotai is the final Torah portion read in the Book of Leviticus. Next week we open the Book of Numbers, as we make our way, week by week, through the Jewish calendar of Torah readings.


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