"He Shall Live by Them"

  • Harav Yehuda Amital

Sicha for Shabbat from the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion



"He Shall Live by Them"

Summarized by Matan Glidai

Translated by Kaeren Fish


"And you shall observe My statutes and My judgments which if a man does them, he shall live by them." (Vayikra 18:5)

The Chassidic teachers draw a number of lessons from this verse:

1. Mitzvot are to be performed not with sadness or a sense of suffering, but rather with joy and vitality.

2. At the end of the Midrash Tanchuma on the Torah we learn that an evil person is considered dead even during his lifetime, because "he sees the sun shining but does not recite the blessing '…Who creates the lights;' he sees the sun set but does not recite the blessing '…Who makes the evenings.'" The characteristic of a living being is that it reacts; it is not apathetic to what is happening around it. The same idea applies to our service of God: it should flow as a natural reaction to what is happening around us. We should feel as though we simply have to do it, that we cannot exist without it.

3. Torah and mitzvot must be a person's main activity. A person may engage for most of the day in work that enables him to earn a living, and he may learn Torah for only one hour each day, but he must feel that that one hour is the important part of his day and of his life, and that all the rest is secondary. Rashi, commenting on the verse, "And you shall observe My statutes to walk in them" (Vayikra 18:4), teaches: "One should not say, 'I have studied the wisdom of Israel; now I shall go and study the wisdom of the nations.'" One may not compare the two spheres. One may indeed study secular disciplines and other cultures, but study of Torah remains in a class of its own and is always the most important. A person should feel that Torah is his life; everything else is subservient to that purpose.

According to these interpretations, "he shall live by them" means that our observance of mitzvot must be full of life, must be a natural part of our life, and must be the focus of our life.

There is another related verse I would like to address:

"The ways of the land of Egypt where you dwelled you shall not imitate, nor shall you imitate the ways of the land of Canaan where I shall bring you, AND YOU SHALL NOT WALK IN THEIR STATUTES." (Vayikra 18:3)

The Rambam explains (Hilkhot Avodat Kokhavim 11:1):

"We are not to follow the statutes of the idolaters, nor to imitate them either in dress nor in hairstyle… rather, a Jew should be differentiated from them and should be recognizable by his dress and by his other actions, just as he is differentiated from them by his attitudes and his thinking… He should not wear clothing that is particular to them, nor grow the fringes of his head like the fringes of theirs, etc."

Commenting on this, the Kesef Mishneh writes:

"Our teacher [the Rambam] meant by this to prohibit only such dress that is particular to them, which Israelites avoid for reasons of modesty or some other reason. Since that way of dress is characteristic of them because of their immodesty and Israelites avoid it because of their religion, if they (the Israelites) were to wear it they would appear to be assenting to the idolaters and following in their ways. But if the style of dress is not particular to them in this manner, then a Jew is not obligated in this sphere to differentiate himself in any way from the idolaters."

If this is indeed what the Rambam meant, then we may ask why he did not state it explicitly. Why did he formulate his words in such a way as to imply that one should not be similar to people of other nations at all?

It would seem that although the prohibition of "walking in the ways of the nations" applies only to those customs that Jews specifically avoid, as the Kesef Mishneh explains, there nevertheless remains a principle of being different from the nations. A Jew should not spend his time trying to imitate them. He should always attempt to act differently from them, demonstrating in many different ways that he is a Jew. We should strive to show that we are not "just another nation," behaving like all the other nations and always following in their ways. We must follow our own path, guided by the service of God. It is this that the Rambam hints at in his words.

(This sicha was delivered at seuda shelishit, Shabbat Parashat Acharei Mot - Kedoshim 5754 [1994].)


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