This week’s parsha begins with, “אִם־בְּחֻקֹתַי תֵּלֵכוּ .../If you follow my statutes …” The pasuk cannot be taken literally because the very next words already enjoin us to keep the commandments, “... וְאֶת־מִצְוֹתַי תִּשְׁמְרוּ .../… and you keep my commandments …” Chazal understand, therefore, that the Torah is instructing us to toil at learning Torah. Why, though, do Chazal say that the pasuk is teaching us to toil at learning Torah and not simply to learn Torah? What is the significance of toiling?
To answer this question we first need to understand what is meant by toiling. What do Chazal mean when they refer to laboring at Torah? The Sfas Emes explains that when God has hidden Himself we need to toil. When God reveals Himself, by definition, things are clear and easy. There is no toil when we are close to God. Toiling means accepting and believing even against the evidence of our senses.
The Sfas Emes applies this definition to learning Torah. We learn Torah, not for the purpose of gaining new knowledge or reaching greater heights. Rather we are required to learn in order to reach greater and greater levels of subordination to God. We study until we reach a point at which we do not understand. We do not understand because God has concealed Himself. If He were revealed to us, we would understand. Even though we do not understand, and the subject matter may fly in the face of our logical faculty, we are nonetheless required to accept and believe. Accepting as truth that which we do not understand is the height of toil. In the act of submission, we merit understanding. Then we learn deeper and reach a new level at which God conceals Himself and we do not understand. And the cycle continues.
The Sfas Emes understands this cycle from the first Midrash in the parsha. The Midrash quotes a pasuk in Tehillim, “חִשַּׁבְתִי דְרָכָי וְאָשִׁיבָה רַגְלַי אֶל־עֵדֹתֶיךָ׃/I considered my ways, and returned my feet to Your testimonies.” The Midrash says that David HaMelech is telling God, “Each day, I considered and said that I am going to a specific place, a specific house and my feet take me to synagogues and study halls.”
What is the significance of this? What does David HaMelech mean? The Sfas Emes explains that this Midrash is teaching us something very deep. All the components of the physical world enclothe a spiritual Godly life-force. When David HaMelech says that he considers each day going to a specific place, a specific house, he is referring to the physical activities and things that are a physical home, so to speak, to the Godly life-force. The Midrash uses a metaphor of synagogues and study halls to describe the Godly life-force because synagogues and study halls include everyone within them just as the underlying spiritual life-force “includes” all the different and disparate physical components in the world. Although there are many different physical manifestations of the Godly life-force, the life-force itself is always the same. The prophet Zecharia, in fact, calls man a “מְהַלֵךְ/walker” because man goes from place to place, from activity to activity, in order to reveal God’s life-force.
David HaMelech is saying that each day he uses his intelligence to contemplate that even though he performs physical activities, there is a spiritual reality that underlies those activities. In the words of the pasuk, “… my feet return me to Your testimonies.” David HaMelech clarified, in his own mind and told others as well, that everything is from God, that there is more to the physical world than meets the eye.
The Midrash is teaching us that the way to reveal God’s life-force is by first contemplating this very idea before every action, by considering that the action that God’s life-force inheres in the action that I am about to do. This is using one’s intelligence to subordinate that very intelligence to something unseen and undetected.
This is what Chazal refer to as toil. This toil applies to every aspect of life. Applying it to learning Torah, it is a cycle of learning, not understanding, subordination, revelation, etc. May we merit toiling at learning Torah.