By Joel E. Gimpel
July 27, 2002
Parshat Eikev begins as Moses continues to encourage the children of Israel to trust in Hashem and in the wonderful rewards He will provide them if they keep the Torah. Moses assures them that they will successfully defeat the nations of Canaan, at which point they must remove every vestige of idol worship remaining in the Holy Land. Moses reminds them about the miraculous manna and the other wonders Hashem provided for them throughout the past forty years, and he warns the Jewish people to beware of the pitfalls of their own future prosperity and military prowess, which might cause them to forget Hashem. He further reminds them of their transgressions in the desert, retelling the story of the golden calf at length, and describing Hashem’s abundant mercy with them. Moses stresses that the generation of the desert had a special responsibility to remain loyal to the mitzvot because of the many miracles that they had personally experienced. After detailing the many virtues of the Promised Land, Moses teaches the people the second paragraph of the Shema, which stresses the fundamental doctrine of reward and punishment based upon our performance of the mitzvot. The Torah portion concludes with Hashem’s promise that He will provide the Jewish people with protection if they observe the laws of the Torah.
Parshat Eikev begins with a sentence that for the most part is straightforward, except for the word that gives the Parsha its name. “And it shall come to pass, “Eikev,” because you harken to these ordinances and observe and keep them, that God will keep his covenant with you.”
There follows a lengthy catalog of the blessings that will follow obedience: God’s love; the fruitfulness of the people, their land and livestock; good health and the defeat of all enemies – material success and well-being (what may be likened to a virtual return to the Garden of Eden and to the life that existed there).
Consistent with the apparent sense of the sentence, “Eikev” then is most commonly translated as “because” or “if only.” Other translations of “Eikev” include an emphasis on the Brit, or covenant with God, and its attendant obligations, in order for it to be fulfilled. Hence “Eikev” is translated as “in exchange for” or “on account of,” which is akin to today’s consideration for a contract.
The mystery of “Eikev,” however, is that its literal translation is “heel,” as in a command to a dog to walk at its master’s feet. And the puzzle that has intrigued the biblical commentaries is why the word “heel” should be used in this context, and with such prominence.
What special message lies within the use of “Eikev” in the context of the Parsha? The most familiar explanation is that of Rashi (an acronym for Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, who lived in France in the 11th Century). Rashi teaches that “Eikev” stresses obedience to those commandments that a person is inclined to treat lightly.
The frame of reference here seems to be those mitzvot that usually don’t get the coverage they deserve because they are viewed as less important, or less pressing in the eyes of the people.
The real message of “Eikev” is that we must treat commandments, great or small, with equal care and concern, in the sense that we should give no thought to whether our reward for obedience will be great or small. Scholars have long observed that from time immemorial, arbitrary differentiations between laws that are supposedly “more important” and those presumed “less important,” particularly between the commandments pertaining to the relationship between man and God and those pertaining to the relationship between man and his fellow man, have had disastrous consequences.
The end of our first era of political independence – the destruction of our first Temple – is ascribed particularly to our neglect of those mitzvot that deal with our relationship with God. And the collapse of our second period of statehood is attributed to our neglect of the commandments that govern the area of human relationships. I need not dwell on the effects today in Israel and, indeed, the world should we neglect those mitzvot similarly dealing with human relationships.
From the experience of our past, we can gain an important insight into the lesson of “Eikev”. We can expect future happiness only if we will accept God’s Law as a whole, and strive towards its observance in its entirety, without distinctions. Only as an all–encompassing, complete entity will the Law of God have its intended effect.
I might still extend this one step further. “Eikev’s” message to man might also be that we are not to take anything for granted. Nothing should be viewed lightly. Nothing should be trampled on: “And it shall ‘Eikev’ come to pass, because you harken to these ordinances and observe and keep them, that God will keep his covenant with you.” In other words, if you hear the music in the rustle of the trees, if you do not ignore the simple beauty in everyday life, then you will find true fulfillment.
In the realm of mitzvot as well as in our outlook on life, nothing can be seen as insignificant. And God exhorts us to pay attention to the ordinary, the regular and the commonplace. Living a life in the fast lane (as many lead today), it’s so easy to run over and trample on simple beauty and everyday blessings. The Torah, then, in today’s Parsha, warns us against taking too great a leap in our quest for beauty and bounty. For in the midst of our search and climb, we often miss the first step.