Bechukotai: Walking the Walk

It is good for the body and good for the soul. It helps one lose weight, provides time for contemplation, is a favorite leisure activity, it can be entertaining – even edifying – and it costs nothing. In fact, there is no down side to it at all. It is the act of walking, or more colloquially, "taking a walk."

Walking is a universal human activity. It is a means of getting from one place to another, obviously. But it is more than that. It is so much a part of the essence of the human that when the Mishnah refers to the human species, it uses the phrase "mehalchei shtayim, those who walk on two legs." Humans are almost unique in that they walk on two legs so that walking is part of our core identity.

The value of walking was brought home to me once when my physician, who had been preaching the need for exercise to me for years, finally gave up on formal exercise routines and the use of various gadgets and machines for physical fitness, and just prescribed two daily walks, at any pace, each at least twenty minutes in duration.

I have experienced further value in walking as the best means to really get to know a new city. In our travels, my wife and I have become familiar with cities as disparate as Paris and Prague and Montreal and Moscow by purchasing guidebooks of walking tours and ambling along main roads and side streets. When we returned to New York City after many years living elsewhere, we renewed our acquaintance and our love for the city by taking frequent walks all over town. And of course, walking the streets of Jerusalem is not only a profoundly emotional experience, but we are told that every four cubits that one walks there is equivalent to one mitzvah.

I know of many examples of famous walks and walkers in mythology, world literature, and history. Jewish tradition knows of many examples of great sages who were fond of walking, and they range from Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues, who walked among the ruins of the Temple in Jerusalem, to the Chazon Ish (Rabbi Abraham Isaiah Karelitz, the twentieth century rabbinic scholar), who took daily walks around the sand dunes outside of Bnei Brak for health-related reasons, and also to experience moments of solitude and inspiration. I vividly remember being transfixed by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik's description of the walks he took during his one visit to the Land of Israel, when he walked about at night and gazed at the star-filled heavens above the Holy Land.

It is fascinating to note that even the Almighty Himself is described as enjoying a daily walk, so to speak. "They (Adam and Eve) heard the sound of the Lord God walking about in the garden at the breezy time of day..." (Genesis 3:8)

It is no wonder, then, that this week's Torah portion, Parshat Bechukotai, begins with the phrase, "If you walk with My statutes and observe My commandments..." (Leviticus 26:3) Granted, many translations have it written otherwise: "If you follow My statutes," or, "If you obey My statutes." But the literal meaning of the Hebrew text is definitely, "If you walk with My statutes." Clearly, the Torah prefers the verb "walk" because of all of its implications. Walking is an exquisitely spiritual activity, and walking in God's ways is the ultimate way to serve Him.

The body of commentary known as Midrash is a vast compilation of rabbinic exegesis of the Bible over many centuries. The largest single collection of such exegesis is known as Midrash Rabbah. For much of my life, I have tried to at least sample a bit of that work every week, ever since my grandfather gave me a small pocket size version of that work for my bar mitzvah. Thus, I discovered the opening passage of this week’s Midrashic commentary long ago, and I reflect upon it frequently.

It reads, "If you walk in My statutes..." This bears on the text, "I considered my ways and turned my feet unto Thy testimonies..." (Psalms 119:59). King David said, "Sovereign of the Universe! Every day I would plan and decide upon taking a walk to a particular place or dwelling-house, but my feet always brought me to synagogues and houses of study... Hence it is written, '...and I turned my feet unto Thy testimonies...'"

King David too was fond of walking. At the simplest level, this Midrash means that although David often set out for other destinations, somehow he always ended up in sacred places. Others see deeper meanings in this passage. My own way of looking at it is that even when David set out for mundane and ordinary places, he somehow found God's spirit wherever he went. He realized that even ordinary places and plain dwellings can be as charged with the Divine Presence as the synagogue and study hall.

In our own journeys, be they brief strolls around the neighborhood or journeys of life, we have our preconceived destinations. But it is amazing how often we reach unanticipated final destinations. Fortunate are those who set out for worldly objectives and discover themselves, unintentionally and often against their will, in synagogues and study halls. Even more fortunate are those who reach destinations which are secular or even profane and are able to bestow upon them a spiritual significance equal to the synagogue and study hall.

Interestingly, it is not only in contrast to the animal world that we are called "mehalchei shtayim." But our ability to walk is what distinguishes us from the angels as well. "And I have given to you the ability to walk among those that merely stand..." (Zechariah 3:7) Angels only stand. They do not walk. They neither change nor grow. Humans are walkers. They never stay still, but are constantly moving; hopefully ever higher, ever nobler, and ever holier.