אם בחוקותי תלכו ואת מצוותי תשמורו ועשיתם אותם. (Lv 26:3)
The Torah repeatedly stresses the importance of conducting one’s life according to God’s standards, namely, the מצוות, the commandments. One who adheres to these standards will enjoy material prosperity and happiness.
The previous chapter of the Torah discusses the laws of יובל/the Jubilee, when all agricultural and financial matters are surrendered to God’s will. Observance of these laws renews the natural processes that bring prosperity. However, that renewal and, indeed, the entire well-being of the Jewish people, are tied to the observance of God’s laws.
Torah observance applies to each of us as individuals and to the community as a whole. There are three kinds of laws that govern a God-driven society. Two of these categories of laws, חוקים and מצוות, are mentioned in this verse. (The third category - משפטים - is mentioned earlier.) These terms define the different types of laws and their purpose in society.
The word חוקים is from the root ח-ק-ק "to circumscribe to protect a basic value." The word מצוות is from the root צ-ו-ה "to delegate authority while retaining control." Cognates of this root connote a type of expansion which, in the case of צ-ו-ה, imply a widening and deepening of the circle of authority.
In addition to different kinds of laws, the Torah speaks of different categories of observance. We find three different verbs used to describe the observance of God’s laws: תלכו/to move toward a goal; תשמרו/to observe; and ועשיתם/do.
The word תלכו is from the root ה-ל-ך "to progress to a goal." The word תשמרו is from the root ש-מ-ר "to protect." The word עשיתם is from the root ע-ש-ה "to make" or to do.
The חוקים are generally laws that circumscribe and limit an individual's activity, typically in the area of morality. Contrary to popular belief, they are not arbitrary laws without rhyme or reason; rather, the חוקים limit one’s physical appetite and dictate the basic norms of human morality. Without them, a person loses his humanity and his identity as a human. Hence, observing the חוקים entails הליכה, making an effort to curb one’s pursuit of possessions and pleasures.
The second category, מצוות, constitutes all the other commandments through which God’s goals for society will be realized. Hence, they require שמירה/to learn and inculcate His commandments and ensure they are maintained. They also require עשיה, faithful performance. These actions will make the Jew an intellectually clear thinker and conscientious human being. Copyright © 2014, Matityahu Clark. All Rights Reserved. This is an excerpt from the forthcoming Hirsch At Your Table, a collection of brief divrei torah based on R. Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Torah Commentary.