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Torah Attitude: Parashas Eikev: Head over heels

Summary

The use of the Hebrew word "eikev" indicates that the Jewish people will listen to G'd's commandments. The use of the word "eikev" is strange, as it appears to violate the principle of free will. Rashi offers a homiletical interpretation that "eikev" refers to people who treat certain mitzvoth lightly by stepping on them with the heel. There are two different types of commandments by G'd, ordinances (mishpatim), which seem to make sense to us, and decrees (chookim), which are beyond our understanding. It is much more difficult to refrain from trying to second-guess G'd when observing the mishpatim. "Be as scrupulous about a minor mitzvah as a major one, because you do not know the reward given" (Pirkei Avos 2:1). G'd designed the world in such a way that every mitzvah is an integral part of life, which is necessary to sustain the workings of the universe. The reward of long life for honouring one's father and mother is the exact same reward for sending a mother bird away. The mitzvoth were not given to benefit G'd but to refine man. When we listen to and observe the wisdom of the Torah, we become partners in G'd's creation. We must be careful how we take each step. We must use our heads, not our heels.

"Because" not "if"

In the first verse of this week's Torah portion, it says, "And it shall be because ("eikev") you will listen to the ordinances and G'd your G'd will keep the covenant with you " (Devarim 7:12). The Sifsei Chachamim points out that it is unusual to use the Hebrew word "eikev" in this connection as it indicates that it is certain that the Jewish people will listen to G'd's commandments. We find the same expression when G'd's blesses Isaac in the merit of Abraham and says: "Because Abraham obeyed my voice " (Bereishis 26:5). There, where Abraham already had obeyed G'd's voice, it was fitting to use the expression of "because" ("eikev"). But why does the Torah use this expression here? The Torah usually provides that if the Jewish people listen to G'd's commandments, then certain benefits will result. For example, in the well known verses of the Shema, we are told of the wonderful benefits which follow "if you listen" (Devarim 11:13).

Free will

The use of the word eikev in this connection is further strange, as it appears to violate the principle of free will by indicating that it is certain that the Jewish people will listen to G'd. Although G'd knows the future and He is beyond our understanding of time, the Torah is based on the premise that we have free will. Only in very rare and exceptional circumstances is this principle overridden. So why would G'd in this Torah portion appear to violate our free will?

Heel

In order to understand this we must look a little closer at the word eikev. This word also means the heel of the foot. In English we find the expression "to follow at the heel of something" which means to be the consequence of that particular thing. Similarly, we may translate the above verse in the following manner: "And it shall be a consequence of you listening to the ordinances and G'd your G'd will keep the covenant with you ". However, we may still ask why does the Torah not use the usual expression of "if you listen". Says the Sifsei Chachamim, there is an additional message here. As Rashi quotes from the Midrash Tanchuma, there is a homiletical interpretation explaining this verse refers to people who treat certain mitzvoth lightly by stepping on them with the heel. Although Rashi normally prefers the straightforward interpretation, since the Torah uses the word "eikev", this indicates that the lesson of the homiletical interpretation takes preference.

Chookim

There are two different types of commandments by G'd, ordinances (mishpatim), which seem to make sense to us, like prohibitions against stealing and killing, and decrees (chookim), which are beyond our understanding, like the prohibition against mixing wool and linen, dietary restrictions, and purification by the red heifer. At the end of last week's Torah portion (Va'Eschanan), G'd commands the Jewish people to observe both the ordinances and the decrees. However, in the first verse of this week's portion, the Torah only refers to the ordinances. Why?

Mishpatim

When a Jew observes the chookim, he does so without any attempt to second-guess G'd, or to add his own personal perspective as part of the process. However, it is much more difficult to refrain from doing so when observing the mishpatim. Since mishpatim appear to be logical, it is very easy for someone to add personal twists or justifications deciding when to apply the mitzvah and when not. Someone may justify an inaccuracy in his dealings with a client claiming this is not considered stealing. Another person feels that turning on electricity on Shabbat is not what the Torah meant to prohibit.

Transgressions of the heel

The Psalmist cautions himself to do right and not to transgress the laws so that he has nothing to fear on the Day of Judgment. He says, "Why do I fear the days of evil, because the transgressions of my heel will surround me." (Tehillim 49:6). The Talmud (Avodah Zorah 18a) explains, "These are the transgressions that a person steps upon with his heel. They surround him on the Day of Judgment". We all have particular preferences which are important to us and dislikes or neutral things which we tend to overlook as less significant. Everyone has a different nature, which is as unique as our fingerprints. However, when it comes to observance of the mitzvoth, the Mishnah warns us, "be as scrupulous about a minor mitzvah as a major one, because you do not know the reward given" (Pirkei Avos 2:1).

Every mitzvah counts

G'd gave us 613 mitzvoth. Each and every one is important and they all complete each other to bring the world and the individual to the desired purpose. What may seem to us as insignificant may be of utmost importance and rewarded in a large measure. When an artist paints a picture, a very minor brush stroke can change the whole effect. When a builder constructs a building, he must be careful to complete each part with precision. Similarly, when a computer programmer designs a program, if merely one digit in the code is misplaced, the whole program is rendered useless. It is not up to us to pick and choose which mitzvah to observe. Every mitzvah counts. G'd designed the world in such a way that every mitzvah is an integral part of life, which is necessary to sustain the workings of the universe.

Honour your father and mother

The Torah tells us "honour your father and mother so that your days will be lengthened and so that it will be good for you" (Devarim 5:16). Interestingly, the Torah offers the exact same reward for sending a mother bird away, as it says: "If a bird's nest happens to be before you on the road, on any tree or on the ground - young birds or eggs - and the mother is roosting on the young birds or the eggs, you shall not take the mother with the young. You shall surely send away the mother and take the young for yourself, so that it will be good for you and will prolong your days" (Devarim 22:6-7). The obligation to honour our father and mother is compared in the Talmud to honouring G'd (Kedushin 30b). The mitzvah of sending away the mother bird is not even an obligation but a rare opportunity. For some reason, known only to G'd, the rewards for each of these two very different mitzvoth are exactly the same!

What difference does it make?

Sometime we may ask what difference does it make to G'd what we do and how we do it? And we are right, it does not. It does not make any difference to G'd if we chase away the mother bird or not (see Berachot 33b). G'd did not give us the Torah to make a difference to Him. Rather, it should make us different. Our Sages posed this question, "What difference does it make to G'd whether we slaughter an animal from the throat or from the neck?" (Midrash Rabba Beresheit 44:1). They answered, "The mitzvoth were not given to benefit G'd but to refine man."

Step carefully

G'd is the painter, the builder and the programmer of all existence. When we listen to and observe the wisdom of the Torah, we become partners in G'd's creation. But we can use our free will to do more harm than good. If we try to second guess G'd by treating one mitzvah more lightly than another, we can destroy the beautiful painting, building and program that G'd has specially designed for our enjoyment. We must be careful how we take each step. We must use our heads, rather than our heels, as we walk through this wonderful creation.

These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.


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