This week's Parsha, Bechukosai, discusses G-D's ultimatum with the Jewish people. It says (Vayikra 26:3),
ג אִם-בְּחֻקֹּתַי תֵּלֵכוּ וְאֶת-מִצְוֹתַי תִּשְׁמְרוּ וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֹתָם: (from here)The following verses go on to expound how great it will be for the Jewish people if they follow this statement. However, G-D then says the second half of the ultimatum (ibid 14-15),
If you will follow in my statutes and you will guard my commandments and perform them.
יד וְאִם-לֹא תִשְׁמְעוּ לִי וְלֹא תַעֲשׂוּ אֵת כָּל-הַמִּצְוֹת הָאֵלֶּה:The verses following this statement go on to expound upon all the the awful things that will occur to the Jewish people if this path is chosen.
טו וְאִם-בְּחֻקֹּתַי תִּמְאָסוּ וְאִם אֶת-מִשְׁפָּטַי תִּגְעַל נַפְשְׁכֶם לְבִלְתִּי עֲשׂוֹת אֶת-כָּל-מִצְוֹתַי לְהַפְרְכֶם אֶת-בְּרִיתִי:
14. If you do not listen to me and you do not perform all of these commandments.
15. And if you despise my statutes, and if your souls reject my laws and you do not perform all of my commandments to break my covenant.
However, I think a detailed analysis is warranted of what exactly these statutes and commandments are and what guarding them and performing them entails. These statements seem to be very vague for something that can lead to such great reward or such terrible punishment. Also, what happens if we perform the commandments, but do not follow in the statutes? Is that even possible?
I believe a good starting point for this topic is Rashi (ibid 3, translation from here),
Rashi explains that the verse is telling us three things. First, a Jew is responsible to learn the commandments. Second, a Jew is responsible to "keep the commandments in mind." Lastly, a Jew is required to perform the commandments.
If you follow My statutes: I might think that this refers to the fulfillment of the commandments. However, when Scripture says, “and observe My commandments,” the fulfillment of the commandments is [already] stated. So what is the meaning of “If you follow My statutes”? It means that you must toil in the study of Torah [Torath Kohanim 26:2] אם בחקתי תלכו: יכול זה קיום המצות, כשהוא אומר ואת מצותי תשמרו, הרי קיום המצות אמור, הא מה אני מקיים אם בחקתי תלכו, שתהיו עמלים בתורה:
And observe My commandments: You shall toil in the study of Torah in order to observe and fulfill [the commandments (Torath Kohanim 26:2). This is similar to, “[Hear, O Israel, the statutes and ordinances…] and learn them, and keep in mind to do them” (Deut. 5:1) ואת מצותי תשמרו: הוו עמלים בתורה על מנת לשמור ולקיים, כמו שנאמר (דברים ה א) ולמדתם אותם ושמרתם לעשותם:
Unfortunately, this is still a little unclear. What exactly is keeping them in mind? For this, we can take a look at the Ibn Ezra (ibid),אם בחקתי...תשמרו ועשיתם: מצוה ללמוד וללמד ולעשותIf [you will follow] in my statutes...you will guard them and you will perform them: It is a commandment to learn, teach and perform.
Rabbah b. Bar Hanah said: I was once following R. Johanan for the purpose of asking him about the [above] matter. He, however, at that moment went into a toilet room. [When he reappeared and] I put the matter before him, he did not answer until he had washed his hands, put on phylacteries and pronounced the benediction. Then he said to us: Even if sometimes we also say. ‘He fulfilled [the law] (performed the commandment-e-man input) . . .’ we never say. ‘He expounded [the law](expounded the commandment because that is so great-e-man input)...’ (Someone asks a question on R. Johanan-e-man input) But did not the Master say: The importance of the study of the law is enhanced by the fact that the study of the law is conducive to [the] practice [of the law] (isn't the study of the commandments important because it leads to performance of the commandments?-e-man)? This, however, offers no difficulty; the latter statement deals with studying [the law] (studying the commandments is not so great and therefore that is why performance is greater), the former with teaching [the law] (teaching the commandments is the greatest thing you can do and that is why it is a real honor-e-man input).This Gemara has several interpretations. However, this translation of the Gemara is according to Rashi. Just to summarize it; Rav Yochanan says that performing the commandments is not as great as "expounding" on the commandments. A question is asked that the dictum states that study of the commandments is only really important because it leads to the performance of the commandments and Rav Yochanan seems to be saying that the performance of the commandments is not as great as "expounding" upon the commandments (expounding is, originally, assumed to mean just studying). This difficulty is cleared up because Rav Yochanan says that just studying the commandments yourself is not as great as performing the commandments, but teaching the commandments to others is greater than performing them. So, according to Rashi, this Gemara is saying that the most important action is teaching the commandments to others, then comes performing the commandments and the least important action is studying the commandments.
However, there is a Gemara in Kiddushin (40b) that seems to contradict this. In fact, Rashi himself explains the Gemara in Kiddushin to be contradicting the Gemara in Babba Kama. It says (Kiddushin 40b, translation is Soncino),
R. Tarfon and the Elders were once reclining in the upper storey of Nithza's house, in Lydda, when this question was raised before them: Is study greater, or practice? R. Tarfon answered, saying: Practice is greater. R. Akiba answered, saying: Study is greater, for it leads to practice. Then they all answered and said: Study is greater, for it leads to action.Rashi says on this Gemara that studying is greater than performing the commandments because if a person studies then he or she will be able to study and perform, both are in his or her hands. Rashi in Babba Kama (17a) says since the point of studying is in order to perform the commandments we see that the performance is more important because the end is more important than the means. So, which argument is correct?
Tosfos comes in Kiddushin (40b) to offer an explanation. He says a novice should learn first before performing the commandments, because if you do not first learn how to properly perform the commandments, then you will not perform them correctly. This is the case in Kiddushin, the Rabbis were talking about a novice and that is why one should learn first. However, if you are an expert and know how to perform the commandments, then performance is better than learning. This is the case in Babba Kama, they are talking about giving someone praise after their death. The greater praise is that he (the dead person) performed the commandments, because if he performed the commandments correctly then he obviously learned how to perform them correctly. This is also what Rabbeinu Tam says on the Gemara in Babba Kama (17a).
Another opinion is quoted in the Tosfos on Babba Kama, that of Rav Achai Gaon. He has a different version of the Gemara that leads him to come to a completely different conclusion. Until this point, everyone has agreed that teaching the commandments to others is the greatest thing a person can do for the simple reason which Rabbeinu Tam states, "That it brings the masses to perform the commandments." However, Rav Achai Gaon's version of the Gemara simply said,
Rabbah b. Bar Hanah said: I was once following R. Johanan for the purpose of asking him about the [above] matter. He, however, at that moment went into a toilet room. [When he reappeared and] I put the matter before him, he did not answer until he had washed his hands, put on phylacteries and pronounced the benediction. How could R. Johanan put on his phylacteries first, did not the Master say: The importance of the study of the law is enhanced by the fact that the study of the law is conducive to [the] practice [of the law]? This, however, offers no difficulty; the latter statement deals with studying [the law] (studying the commandments is more important than performing the commandments because studying brings about the performance), the former action (putting on the phylacteries first) with teaching [the law] (performing the commandments is more important than teaching the commandments).According to this version of the Gemara, we learn the exact opposite lesson from that of Rashi. Studying the commandments is more important because it brings one to perform the commandments, but performing the commandments is more important than teaching them to others, because that, apparently, does not bring anyone to actually perform the commandments.
In all honesty, Rav Achai Gaon's version of the Gemaraa in Babba Kama fits much better with the Gemara in Kiddushin. In Rav Achai's version both Gemara's are saying that studying is preferred to performance because studying brings about performance. Meaning, because it brings about performance, if you study you will be able to study and perform, both are "in your hands" (as Rashi says in the Gemara in Kiddushin).
A side point, the Soncino brings up a very good practical reason for this discussion about which is better, learning or performing the commandments. He says,
At this point we can say that Rashi and Tosfos would hold a novice should first learn and an expert should first perform the commandments. However, it seems like Rav Achai Gaon would hold that in every situation a person should first and foremost learn. Also, Rashi and Tosfos would say that, before anything, a person should risk his life to teach. However, Rav Achai Gaon would say that is the last thing a person should risk his life for.This was a practical problem during the Hadrianic persecution, when both study and practical observance were forbidden, and the question was for which risks should sooner be taken. — Weiss. Dor., II, 125, Graetz, Geschichte, IV,p. 429
To conclude this debate I would like to bring in the Rambam (Talmud Torah 3:3-4),
The Rambam makes it very clear to us how he read the Gemara.The goal is for all commandments to be fulfilled. However, it is important for everyone to learn about the commandments as best as they can before fulfilling them. Therefore, if a person is learning, he should continue learning unless there is a commandment that will be left undone due to his learning.אין לך מצוה בכל המצות כולן שהיא שקולה כנגד תלמוד תורה אלא תלמוד תורה כנגד כל המצות כולן שהתלמוד מביא לידי מעשה. לפיכך התלמוד קודם למעשה בכל מקום:You do not have a commandment from all the commandments that is equal to learning Torah, rather learning Torah is equal to all the commandments because learning brings about performance [of all the other commandments.] Therefore, learning takes precedence to performance in every place.
היה לפניו עשיית מצוה ותלמוד תורה אם אפשר למצוה להעשות ע"י אחרים לא יפסיק תלמודו. ואם לאו יעשה המצוה ויחזור לתלמודו:If [there is a situation] in front of [a Jewish person] that he can perform a commandment and learn Torah, then if it is possible for the commandment to be done by someone else he should not stop his learning. [However, if no one else can perform the commandment] he should perform it and then return to his learning.
This brings us back to our verse, "If you will follow in my statutes and you will guard my commandments and perform them." The Torah is telling us, as the Ibn Ezra points out, G-D wants us to learn, teach and perform His commandments. In my opinion, all three of these things appear to be equally important, but there is a practical difference. G-D tells us that, as a nation, we must do all three of these actions of learning, teaching and performing. However, in the book of Joshua (1:8, translation from here) G-D gives us some advice,
In order for us to be successful and to follow in the statutes, guard and perform the commandments, we need to learn as much as we can. The only way to make sure that we know how to properly perform and teach the commandments is to learn everything that we must perform. Therefore, the Rambam tells us learning is paramount, because without learning no other commandments can be fulfilled. However, performance of the commandments must be done, that is why if no other Jews can perform a commandment you must stop learning to fulfill that commandment. As long as some Jews are performing the commandments, that leaves others free to learn and teach the commandments so, when the time arises, they can also perform the commandments correctly in the way G-D desires.
8. This book of the Torah shall not leave your mouth; you shall meditate therein day and night, in order that you observe to do all that is written in it, for then will you succeed in all your ways and then will you prosper. ח. לֹא יָמוּשׁ סֵפֶר הַתּוֹרָה הַזֶּה מִפִּיךָ וְהָגִיתָ בּוֹ יוֹמָם וָלַיְלָה לְמַעַן תִּשְׁמֹר לַעֲשֹוֹת כְּכָל הַכָּתוּב בּוֹ כִּי אָז תַּצְלִיחַ אֶת דְּרָכֶךָ וְאָז תַּשְׂכִּיל:
A final thought on this subject. The Gemara in Berachos (35b) talks about this verse from the book of Joshua. I think it is very important to bring it into our discussion.
Our Rabbis taught (Divarim 11:14): "And thou shalt gather in thy corn." What is to be learned from these words? Since it says (Joshua 1:8), "This book of the law shall not depart out of thy mouth," I might think that this injunction is to be taken literally. Therefore it says, ‘And thou shalt gather in thy corn’, which implies that you are to combine the study of them (the words of Torah) with a worldly occupation. This is the view of R.Ishmael. R. Simeon b. Yohai says: Is that possible? If a man ploughs in the ploughing season, and sows in the sowing season, and reaps in the reaping season, and threshes in the threshing season, and winnows in the season of wind, what is to become of the Torah? No; but when Israel perform the will of the Omnipresent, their work is performed by others, as it says (Yeshayahu 61:5). "And strangers shall stand and feed your flocks. etc.," and when Israel do not perform the will of the Omnipresent their work is carried out by themselves, as it says (ibid), "And thou shalt gather in thy corn." Nor is this all, but the work of others also is done by them, as it says (Devarim 28:48), "And thou shalt serve thine enemy etc." Said Abaye: Many have followed the advice of Ishmael, and it has worked well; others have followed R. Simeon b.Yohai and it has not been successful. Raba said to the Rabbis: I would ask you not to appear before me during Nisan and Tishri so that you may not be anxious about your food supply during the rest of the year.Also, in Pirkei Avos (2:2) it says,
Rabban Gamliel the son of Rabbi Yehuda the Prince said: Good is Torah study together with a worldly occupation, for the exertion in both makes one forget sin. All Torah study without work will cease and it will bring along in its wake sinfulness.We can see from here that a person needs to focus on learning, teaching and performing the commandments. However, that is not all one can focus on. A person must find a balance that allows them to pursue the path G-D says is best for us. We must realize how to divide our time so we can learn, yet also perform the commandment of supporting our families. This is what Rabbi Yishamel says and it is, apparently, the most successful approach to Judaism.
In conclusion, the verses in this week's Parsha are not necessarily meant for individuals, they are meant to be fulfilled through the entire nation. Some people in the nation are supposed to be the learners and the teachers. Others are supposed to be the ones that perform the commandments. Yet, the majority are supposed to live a life of learning, teaching and performing the commandments as Rabbi Yishmael points out.