Rabbi Wolpe - ADL Impressions

Bechukotai – The Magic of “If”

Mark Twain, whose manuscripts are nearly illegible due to all the changes and revisions, once wrote, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter, ’tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

For a word to be lightning, it does not need to be long. In this week’s Torah portion, the 19th century sage, Mei Hashiloah, Rabbi Mordecai Yosef of Izhbitza, focuses on two letters: the word “if,” which begins the portion: “If you walk in my ways.” (Leviticus 26:3) He explains that “if” signals the uncertainty of one who seeks to follow God’s ways, for “the will of God is very deep.”

The more we explore “if,” the more lightning we find in the word. “If” in Hebrew is im and contains all possibility in it. “If this had happened.” “If that had not happened.” “If I had said this.” “If I had not said that.” But the word im contains an even greater power in Jewish history.

“Im” is spelled aleph mem. The Mincha Belulah (16th century) teaches that in liberation, there was an im – an if. The name Aaron begins with an aleph and Moses with a mem. So too with Purim: Esther begins with an aleph and Mordecai with a mem. Finally, Eliyahu, the herald of the end times, begins with an aleph and Moshiach, the Messiah, begins with a mem. The aleph and mem of im carry within them past and future redemption.

“If” contains all of life’s regrets. But even more, im is a word of possibility. God says, “IF you walk in My ways.” We hold the im in our own hands.

One of the best loved poems in the English language was written by Rudyard Kipling for his son. It is called, “If.” It’s worth reading the whole poem – here is a part:

“If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too…
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a man, my son!”

“If” is in your power – you can change your life. God gives us the power – and the choice.