Sunday, August 23, 2020

Parashat Shofetim: Walking


Thoughts on Parashat Shofetim 2020

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Over the course of the several years which I spent living in Israel, I developed a passion for two activities: learning and walking. In the two years following high school and two more after marriage, I spent the vast majority of my time poring over the many biblical and rabbinic texts of our tradition. During the “in between” time, however, I would take walks. Sometimes I had a destination in mind – the thirty-minute route from home to yeshiva and back, for example. But oftentimes I didn’t. Walking was my way of “airing out.” It was my brief respite from the walls of the bet midrash; my engagement with the sacred air of Jerusalem.


The Torah hints at a particular significance to walking in many different contexts.


In Parashat Shofetim, Moshe mentions the Cohen’s future words of inspiration to the people before leaving for war:

“Hear, Yisrael, you are approaching the battle today against your enemies…Do not fear and do not quake…For Hashem your God, is the One who walks with you, to fight for you with your enemies, to save you. (Devarim 20:4)

He will tell the soldiers that God’s security will extend beyond “being present with you” to “walking with you.” Indeed, the first discernable involvement of God with the world took place after Adam and Hava ate from the Ess HaDa’at: “And they heard the sound of Hashem the God walking about in the garden in the evening breeze” (Bereshit 3:8).


Am Yisrael was likewise instructed to follow in God’s ways by means of a figurative “walking.” It is a verb repeated in Sefer Devarim in many contexts, most famously in “After Hashem your God you shall walk” (Devarim 13:5) and “God will set you up for Him as a holy people…when you keep the command of Hashem your God and walk in His ways” (Devarim 28:9). By doing so, the nation will follow in the ways of Noah, who “walked with God” (Bereshit 6:9) and Avraham, who was instructed to “Walk in my presence and be blameless” (Bereshit 17:1). 


“Walking,” then, describes God’s presence with us in this world, which we are instructed to follow. It is, in fact, the central aspect of the covenant which God presented to us: “If you walk to my laws…I will walk in your midst” (VaYikra 26:3, 12). And it is no wonder, then, that we refer to the expansive realm of Jewish law as that of “walking,” or halakhah!


But why walking? If the underlying concept in these various situations is the state of “presence” or “action” of us with God or God with us, then the Torah could have used words that more clearly portray that meaning. Why is “walking” the chosen verb for the ideal way in which Am Yisrael and God share together in a relationship?


Reflecting back upon the unique intersection of walking with the years of significant growth in my life, I sense a certain appropriateness. As we set out on a walk, we enter into a realm of transition. It’s the stage of “in between” – which comes after the place of beginning and before that of ending. “I love to travel, but hate to arrive,” Albert Einstein once said, in appreciation of this realm.[1] Friedrich Nietzche likewise reveled in his feeling as a “wanderer on the earth – though not as a traveler to a final destination.”[2] Walking represents not a place of “being,” but one of “becoming.” It is the time which is underlain by possibility and rich in opportunity.


We could never imagine describing God as a being who is “set in stone.” Though his perfection is unmovable, His engagement with the world is constantly developing.  Much as Adam and Hava heard the vibrancy of His “footsteps” long ago, so too did our forefathers on the battlegrounds of war. And so too must we, in the relationship we will develop with Him over the course of our lives. But that relationship, of course, is reciprocal. Sitting back and awaiting His presence is futile. We can only hear His footsteps of involvement along the trails of a walk. We will only recognize God as our source of developing life when we set out to develop our life.

[1] Recalled by John Wheeler, in Albert Einstein: His Influence on Physics, Philosophy and Politics (Braunschwig/Wiesbaden, GE, 1979), pg. 202.

[2] Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits (Cambridge, UK, 1996), pg. 203.