אם בחקתי תלכו: מלמד שהמקום מתאוה שיהיו ישראל עמלים בתורה. וכן הוא אומר (תהלים פא, יד): "לו עמי שומע לי ישראל בדרכי יהלכו כמעט אויביהם אכניע ועל צריהם אשיב ידי". ואומר: (ישעיהו מח, יח): " לוּא הִקְשַׁבְתָּ לְמִצְוֹתָי וַיְהִי כַנָּהָר שְׁלוֹמֶךָ וְצִדְקָתְךָ כְּגַלֵּי הַיָּם וַיְהִי כַחוֹל זַרְעֶךָ וְצֶאֱצָאֵי מֵעֶיךָ כִּמְעֹתָיו לֹא יִכָּרֵת וְלֹא יִשָּׁמֵד שְׁמוֹ מִלְּפָנָי". וכן הוא אומר: (דברים ה, כה): "מִי־יִתֵּן וְהָיָה לְבָבָם זֶה לָהֶם לְיִרְאָה אֹתִי וְלִשְׁמֹר אֶת־כָּל־מִצְוֺתַי כָּל־הַיָּמִים לְמַעַן יִיטַב לָהֶם וְלִבְנֵיהֶם לְעֹלָם"-- מלמד שהמקום מתאוה שיהיו עמלים בתורה.
אם בחקתי תלכו: יכול אלו המצות? כשהוא אומר "ואת מצותי תשמרו ועשיתם אתם", הרי מצות אמורות. הא מה אני מקיים "אם בחקתי תלכו"? להיות עמלים בתורה
If you walk in my statutes — Derive that the Omnipresent yearns for Israel to be toilers in Torah. Thus it says “Would my people listen to me, that Israel would walk in my ways, then in an instant I would subdue their enemies and I would avenge myself on their oppressors.” (Psalms 81:14), and it says “Only hearken to my commandments, then your peace would be a river, and your righteousness would be as the waves of the ocean, and your children would be as sand, and your descendants as the sea’s innards [all the creatures in it]. Their name will never be cut off or obliterated before me” (Isaiah 48:18-19) Also it says, “Who would give that their hearts would be set on fearing me to observe all my commands all the days in order to benefit them and their children forever.” (Deuteronomy 5:25) Learn that the Omnipresent yearns that they toil in Torah.
If you walk in my statutes: One might think these are the commandments, but since it also states “if you observes my commandments, and if you do them” then the commandments are explicitly mentioned. So how do I understand “If you walk in my statutes?” This means be toilers in Torah. — Sifra
The parasha appears to open with a redundancy: “If you walk in my statutes, and if you guard my commandments, and if you do them…” There appears to be a threefold address to keep the commandments. Similarly on the reverse, there is a manyfold repetition on the choice to reject the commandments. One might think that repetitive language is simply a poetic choice of the Torah, but the Sifra actually derives a new idea from here, that one should toil in Torah. How do Our Sages derive this idea? Is it simply a matter of ensuring that no phrase is unnecessary? What does it mean by toil in Torah?
If the Sifra only contained the second paragraph complaining about the redundancy, then it would be clear that this was the driving force for the idea of toiling in Torah. But it opens by quoting several examples of places in Tanakh where Gd begs Israel to keep His statues, and in each case the Sifra believes he is asking for them to toil in Torah. So it is clear that Our Sages mean that it is toiling in Torah which enables the keeping of commandments. But why? What is this toil meant to accomplish.
Seforno and Gur Aryeh both explain this brilliantly. Studying Torah is not for the purpose of simply understanding how to practice commandments. Nor is it simply meant to keep people busy with Judaism. It’s a necessary component of keeping all the other commandments and deepening the connection with the Creator. Gur Aryeh connects the word הליכה, walking, with spending effort to arrive at a deeper understanding. We don’t always understand everything in Judaism. Some of the commandments defy logical reasons. But every time we go and review their laws, we understand a little bit more of their purpose and appreciate them a tiny bit more. This is “guarding the commandments,” learning more about them in order to perform them better and thereby uphold them.
Seforno says something similar. He interprets the opening verse thusly: “If you follow in the ways of the Blessed Gd by studying the practical laws of how to perform them, and in addition you guard them by delving into their purpose and give meaning to their performance, only then will you complete His desire that you be created in his image."
Many times, we get discouraged in life and let the commandments fall by the wayside. The Sifra is teaching us how to safeguard ourselves from this apathy. It’s not enough to simply do the commandments by rote, and should not just study the minimum necessary to practice correctly. Torah is what increases our connection to Gd and the commandments, and it is constant Torah study that gives us the drive to connect with our Judaism properly. For my own part, I did not have the appreciation for the prayers that I do now after preparing for our Sunday morning tefilla shiur (which all men should attend @ 10:00AM). The more we grow in our knowledge of Gd, the greater our appreciation will be for all of His laws.
Next week, in the haftara the second day of Shavuot, we will read the phrase הליכות עולם לו, “the doings of the world are His.” Gd is the master of space and time. But as we say in our prayers, The House of Eliyahu connects this verse to another idea: “Anyone who studies halakha every day is guaranteed a place in the World to Come,” punning halikhot meaning doings with halakha, which is in turn named for the verse in our parasha. This is not simply a cute pun. Studying Gd’s commandments gives us a better appreciation for Gd’s laws and for His actions in turn, and that lets us truly see that “the doings of the world are His”. Let us use the upcoming anniversary of the giving of the Torah to renew our connection to it and redouble our study and reenergize our Judaism.