Pathways of Sefer Vayikra

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A frustrated male in a classroom with two students in background
08 May 2018

Like many people, I think, I long had this idea that much of the book of Vayikra is boring. I mean, of course, none of G-d’s words could possibly be boring – but yeah, boring. Complicated, dry and, without the Beit Hamikdash, largely (though of course not wholly) irrelevant. Also gross, for those of us who would prefer not to discuss the innards of dead animals.

The more I learn, though – not just Vayikra, but anything in Torah – the more I see how if I just manage to pay enough attention, even passages that seem so very dry or irrelevant can hold sparks of deep, relatable insight. That is the magnificence of Torah study, and I see it particularly beautifully in a bit of meta-exegesis (you’ll see) in the Or Hachaim’s very long comment on the beginning of Parshat Bechukotai.

Vayikra 26:3 seems fairly straightforward: “If you follow My laws and guard My commandments and do them” – then you’ll have rain and food and stuff. The Torah makes this sort of statement in other places too, and it’s easy to let our eyes just glaze past it. The Or Hachaim, however, does no such thing; in fact, by’s count, he has 42 comments on this pasuk!

No, I’m not going to share them all. But there is a piece of his analysis that I think contains a particularly crucial, yet too often ignored, message about how to approach Torah study.

Like any good bit of Torah commentary, the Or Hachaim starts with a question, or several.

The first question is actually cited from the midrash halacha on Vayikra, and the midrash answers it: If the word “חוקותי” is really just another word for “My laws” – what is added by using both that and the word “מצוותי,” “My commandments?” The midrash concludes that “חוק” here is actually a reference to one specific law; namely, amelut baTorah, being engrossed in learning Torah.

The Or Hachaim has several questions about this midrash, along with many answers. Many, many answers, in his 42 comments. For instance:

Why use specifically the word “חוק” to refer to Torah study?  

This part isn’t really my main point, but I have to share it anyway. The Or Hachaim suggests that the word “חוק” here is connected to “חקק,” “engrave”: we have a responsibility to “engrave” Torah in ourselves. How do we do that? By repetition, “even to learn things one has learned two or three times.” He then goes on to quote another midrash, Kohelet Rabbah chapter 3, with an explanation for why we so often forget what we learn: It was part of G-d’s wisdom to create us as such forgetful beings, so that we would always learn Torah with desire.

I relate to this particularly deeply because I often can’t quite put my mind on a source I learned (or taught!) just a few weeks ago… or days, or hours… I almost always teach from comprehensive notes because I can’t guarantee I’ll be able to pull things out of my mind with total accuracy on the spot. That can sometimes feel embarrassing as a teacher, but Kohelet Rabbah reassures me that it’s natural, and even intentional. I get to be amazed and inspired all over again, each time I learn a piece of Torah. And each time I learn a piece of Torah, it digs deeper into me; whether or not I remember the details of the content, every experience of learning is transformative. Each time, Torah becomes more and more a part of me, engraved in my soul.

Of course, the transformative nature of Torah study is not only because we have to do it again and again. The Or Hachaim goes on to raise other questions about the identification of “חוקותי” in this pasuk as “Torah study”:

Why use a plural word to refer to one law?

Why use the word “תלכו,” “you shall go,” specifically in connection with the act of Torah study?

Among the many, many explanations he offers is the meta-exegetical point that Torah study is not actually one thing. (And by “meta-exegetical,” I mean he’s using exegesis, scriptural interpretation, to make a point about exegesis. I, for one, enjoy that sort of thing. I also enjoy saying “meta.”)

Here the Or HaChaim references the Zohar as the source for an idea that many of us actually learn at a young age, but may not fully appreciate: “The Torah has four paths, namely, peshat, remez, derash, and sod. And from these, shivim panim (’70 faces,’ or facets) separate, and each of those to a number of paths and trails and lanes.” Note that I’m selecting English synonyms for “path” somewhat arbitrarily. The point is that he says there are lots of them, perhaps of different sizes and types.

Torah study is referred to as plural “laws,” says the Or Hachaim, because it is not “one law.” The pursuit of Torah wisdom is so multifaceted that we cannot refer to it in the singular; it is inherently a plurality.

Which means that following only one of the paths doesn’t really count as Torah study.

“Bechukotai telechu” – “you shall go in My laws”: Follow the multitude of paths of Torah – all of them! If Torah study involves many paths, then engaging in Torah study involves walking down all of them in an attempt to, in the Or Hachaim’s words, “explain the Scriptures.”

Growing up and attending a Jewish day school, I learned about pardes, the acronym for peshat, remez, derash, and sod. And I heard the expression “the Torah has seventy faces.” But until I read the Or Hachaim, I never thought about how these numbers relate to each other or fully comprehended the exponential vastness implied by these traditions of multiple interpretations. I still don’t comprehend it, of course, because I’ve still only had the privilege to stroll down a few of these paths, and I usually forget and have to retrace my steps. But the sheer potential for learning is astounding – even when what we’re learning is Vayikra. Maybe especially when what we’re learning is Vayikra. Because as the Or Hachaim goes on, “one should not say there is nothing in Torah except the peshat that is understood by all.”

And it occurs to me even more that the perspective he’s arguing against is often taken even when we’ve barely scratched the surface of the peshat we think is so obvious.

It’s so easy to simply read and move on. It’s easy, too, to read and dismiss: “Whoa, what a strange mitzvah! Okay, so what’s for dinner?” “Wow, that midrash doesn’t make any sense; those details aren’t anywhere in the text!” But if we leave it there, we haven’t learned anything at all. Every pasuk, every bit of derash – in fact, every bit of peshat too – has innumerable little paths branching off from it. We think we understand? We think we’ve got the “peshat that is understood by all”? We’ve barely begun.

That, to me, is the magnificence of Torah study, and it is an essential piece of what makes the experience of navigating the maze of Torah so transformative, again and again.

Whatever question I have – someone has likely had it before; I just have to pull out more sefarim (or post on Facebook, when that’s what’s available). Whatever questions I have on the answer I find – there is more to uncover: more answers, and more explanatory paths leading from each answer. When I think something is dry and meaningless – well, to borrow an expression from one of my teachers, perhaps I simply haven’t yet had the merit to understand it. Perhaps I have to keep going.

Even if we don’t understand yet, even if we think we understand already, even if we think we’ll never understand, even if we think there’s nothing there to understand – we are duty-bound to keep going. It’s a law. It’s the law.

We find the sparks of insight and relatable, penetrating meaning by following as many of those paths of interpretation as we can. By questioning and searching and never letting up, never settling for anything that looks like “the peshat that is understood by all,” always searching for the paths that will engrave Torah ever more deeply into our souls. By simply remembering that there is more to learn, even when we are not (yet) able to learn it; by acknowledging there is more to every bit of Torah than “the peshat that is understood by all.”

And that’s only one of the approximately 42 messages that just one scholar uncovered in the seemingly straightforward (and even boring) Vayikra 26:3.

Sarah C. Rudolph is a Jewish educator and freelance writer. She has been sharing her passion for Jewish texts of all kinds for over 15 years, with students of all ages. Sarah’s essays have been published in a variety of internet and print media, including Times of Israel, Kveller, Jewish Action, The Lehrhaus, TorahMusings, and more. Sarah lives in Cleveland with her husband and four children, but is privileged to learn online with students all over the world through and

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.