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Torah Attitude: Parashas Eikev: Head over heels

Summary

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 commandments lightly by stepping on them with the heel. There are two different types of commandments in the Torah, ordinances (mishpatim), which we can comprehend, and decrees (chookim), that are beyond our understanding. It is much more difficult to refrain from trying to second-guess G'd when observing the ordinances. "Be as scrupulous about a minor commandment as a major one, because you do not know their reward" (Pirkei Avos 2:1). G'd designed the world in such a way that every commandment is an integral part of our life, and is necessary to sustain the universe. The reward of long life for honouring one's father and mother is the exact same reward as for sending a mother bird away. The commandments were not given to benefit G'd but to refine man. When we listen to and observe the laws of the Torah, we become partners in G'd's creation. It is up to us to watch 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 listen to the ordinances and HASHEM your G'd will keep the covenant with you " (Devarim 7:12). The Sifsei Chachamim points out that is unusual to use the Hebrew word "eikev" in this connection as it indicates that the Jewish people for sure will listen to G'd's commandments. We find the same expression the first time G'd blessed Isaac and said: "And I will bless you because Abraham obeyed my voice " (Bereishis 26:3-5). There it is understandable why the Torah would use the expression of "because" ("eikev") since Abraham already had obeyed G'd's voice. But why does the Torah use this expression here? The Torah usually says that if the Jewish people will listen to G'd's commandments, then certain benefits will result. For example, in the second portion of Shema (Devarim 11:13), we are told of the wonderful benefits which follow if we listen to G'd's commandments.

Free will

The use of the word eikev here is even more difficult to understand. It appears to violate the principle of free will by assuming 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 violate our free will in this connection?

Heel

In order to answer these questions 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 the consequence of a particular thing. Similarly, we may translate the above verse in the following manner: "And it shall be the consequence when you listen to the ordinances and HASHEM your G'd will keep the covenant with you " However, it still needs explanation why does the Torah not use the usual expression of "if you listen". The Sifsei Chachamim answers that the Torah uses the word eikev to teach an additional homiletical interpretation. This is why Rashi here quotes the Midrash Tanchuma that explains that this verse refers to people who treat certain commandments lightly and step on them with their heel. In general, Rashi only brings the simple interpretation. But since the Torah here uses the word "eikev" the text itself indicates this homiletical interpretation.

Decrees

An additional question arises in connection with this verse. At the end of last week's Torah portion (Va'Eschanan), G'd commanded the Jewish people to observe both the ordinances (mishpatim) and the decrees (chookim). However, in this verse, the Torah only refers to the ordinances. Why does the Torah not mention the decrees? In order to answer this we must analyze what is the difference between these two kinds of commandments. The ordinances are commandments that we can comprehend, such as the prohibitions against stealing and killing. On the other hand, the decrees are beyond our understanding. This kind of commandment includes the prohibition against mixing wool and linen, dietary restrictions, and the purification by the red heifer at the time of the Temple.

Ordinances

An observant Jew would never attempt to second-guess G'd when he observe the decrees. Since these commandments are beyond our comprehension we cannot add our personal perspective. However, this is not the case when one observes the ordinances. Since these commandments are logical, it is very easy for someone to add personal twists or justifications and to decide when it applies and when not. Someone may justify slight dishonesty in his dealings with a client claiming this is not considered theft. Another person may feel that turning off the respirator of a terminally ill patient is an act of mercy rather than murder.

Transgressions of the heel

King David says, "Why do I fear the days of evil (when one will be judged for one's evil doings) because the transgressions of my heel will surround me." (Tehillim 49:6). The Talmud (Avodah Zorah 18a) explains the meaning of the transgressions of "my heel": "These are the transgressions that a person steps upon with his heel. They will surround him on the Day of Judgment". We all have our personal preferences that are important to us. We also have our dislikes and things that we tend to consider insignificant. Everyone has a different nature, which is as unique as one's fingerprints. However, when it comes to observance of the commandments, the Mishnah (Pirkei Avos 2:1) says "be as scrupulous about a minor commandment as a major one, because you do not know their reward". This is to remind us that irrespective of our personal feelings we should be careful to observe every single commandment. As the commentaries say, "Do not look at the insignificance of the commandment; rather focus on the significance of the One who commanded it."

Every mitzvah counts

G'd gave us 613 commandments. Each and every one is important and they all complete each other to bring us to the desired purpose for which we were created. A commandment that may seem to us as unimportant may be of utmost importance and rewarded in a large measure. This is comparable to an artist who paints a picture where a very minor brush stroke can change the whole effect. Just like a builder who constructs a building must be careful to complete each part with precision, and a computer programmer who designs a program, if merely one digit in the code is misplaced, the whole program is rendered useless. So too it is in regards to the commandments. It is not up to us to pick and choose which commandment to observe. Each one counts. G'd designed the world in such a way that every commandment is an integral part of our life and is necessary to sustain the universe.

Honour your father and mother

We can gain a better insight into this concept by comparing the following two commandments. In last week's Torah portion, we read the repetition of the Ten Commandments. In the fifth commandment it says (Devarim 5:16): "honour your father and mother so that your days shall be prolonged and so that it will be good for you". It is most interesting to note that the Torah offers the exact same reward for sending a mother bird away. As it says in Parashas Ki Seitzei (Devarim 22:6-7): "If a bird's nest happens to be before you on the road, on a 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 shall prolong your days").The actual fact that this commandment is part of the Ten Commandments shows its significance. In addition to this the Talmud (Kidushin 30b) teaches that the obligation to honour one's father and mother is comparable to honouring G'd. On the other hand, the commandment of sending away the mother bird is not even an obligation but a rare opportunity. Nevertheless, the rewards in this world of these two very different commandments are exactly the same!

What difference does it make?

Sometime we may wonder what difference does it make to G'd what we do and how we do it? The truth is that it does not. For example, it makes no difference to G'd whether we chase away the mother bird or not (see Berachot 33b). However, G'd did not give us the Torah for His sake. He gave us the Torah that through our studying and fulfilling the laws of the Torah we are educated to develop positive character traits. This is what the Midrash Rabba (Bereishis 44:1) teaches as it asks the following question, "What difference does it make to G'd whether we slaughter an animal from the throat or from the neck?" The Midrash answers, "The commandments were not given to benefit G'd but to refine man."

Step carefully

G'd is the painter, builder and programmer of all existence. He has put us into His world and given us free choice. When we listen to and observe the laws of the Torah, we become partners in G'd's creation. But if we try to second guess G'd and treat one commandment more lightly than another, we can destroy the beautiful painting, building and program that G'd has specially designed for our benefit. It is up to us to watch how we take each step. We must make sure to 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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