Embodied Jewish Practice

At the start of Behukotai, this week’s Torah portion, we read:

If you walk in My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit. ( Leviticus 26:3-4)

It seems clear enough that the Torah instructing us to keep the rules. What is the difference between a חוק and a מצוה? What is the differences between walking and observing them? What are the differences between laws and commandments?

Sforno explains this:

laws- chukkot are like Royal decrees, something person has to be guided by if he expects his endeavors in life to prosper. The Hebrew expression describing the fact that one abides by them is called הליכה, “walking.”…The thrust of our verse then is as follows: “if you will conduct yourselves in accordance with the practical part of My Torah, i.e. the performance of commandments requiring deeds, and you will study these laws in order to understand their purpose and in order to give meaning to your performance of these laws, you will accomplish that you will deserve the description of being a creature which reflects “God’s image.” ( Sforno on Levitius 26:3)

Traditionally the difference between a חוק and a מצוה is that a חק is irrational, while the מצוה is rational.  חק can also mean something else. It could also come from the word חקק, which means to engrave, to be embedded.  (v. ויקרא רבה לה:ה) 

The חקים are those things, those aspects of the tradition that are embedded within us.  They are the things that we do because those who came before us did them – they are the lessons and the morals and the customs that are passed down from generation to generation, and create an imperative. In our walking in these aspects of religious life we forge ahead with them engraved within us. This represents an embodied notion of Jewish life.

As we prepare for Shavuot, this resonates with our experience of Sinai. Na’aseh V’Nishmah, in the doing we will come to understand. So maybe a מצוה is the rational, but the חוק is the embodied. In keeping these laws we walk the walk of הלכה- embodied Jewish practice.


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