A new series on Parsha, Rabbi Silber shares some of the basic highlights from the weekly torah portion.
“And it will be, because you will heed these ordinances and keep and perform them, that the Lord, your God, will keep for you the covenant and the kindness that He swore to your forefathers.” (Devorim 7:12)
At first glance, it represents a simple, straightforward theme; if we follow the word of God, He will take care of us. The Torah is replete with verses emphasizing the reciprocal nature of our relationship with God. If we are willing to commit our allegiance to the Torah and Mitzvos, God will see that our needs are met. This idea is at the core of our relationship contract with God: you will get out what you are willing to put in. Yet, the famed commentator, Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki 1040-1105) highlights an additional dimension of meaning:
“And it will be, because you will heed: Heb. עֵקֶב, lit. heel. If you will heed the minor commandments which one [usually] tramples with his heels [i.e., which a person treats as being of minor importance].”
The Torah uses the word eikev which contextually means “if” but can also mean “heel.” As such Rashi understands an additional nuanced message, “If we are vigilant with the details which people normally trample upon, there will be abundant Divine blessing.” Rashi is teaching us two profound lessons.
Lesson #1: We all trample on something. In our spiritual lives we consciously or subconsciously create a religious hierarchy. There are some obligations which we feel are important and other obligations which are not. There are details which apply to each individual and details which do not. There are mitzvos we each can relate to and others which seem anachronistic, or at odds with our personal life outlook or philosophy. And so, we trample. We adhere, obey and admire the aspects with which we agree and intentionally or unintentionally set aside the aspects with which we don’t. Here is the beautiful reality: God doesn’t ask us to be perfect. He doesn’t expect us to perform all of His commandments and He doesn’t expect proficiency in every area of Judaic practice. All God desires is effort. We create these “mitzvah rankings” as a way of justifying non-performance. But we don’t have to do that. We don’t perform all the mitzvos because we are limited human beings who try hard but can’t always get it right. We recognize that every law and detail in the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) is binding and obligatory but are not always able to live up to this standard. The good news is, it’s ok. God understands. Just don’t trample and make things unimportant to justify our human finitude. In fact, if you look at the wording of the verse it says, “And it will be if you listen (tishmaun) …”, just listen! Yes, the ultimate goal we aspire to is performance (va’asisem) but start just by listening, acknowledging that these are the expectations.
Lesson #2: Spiritual success doesn’t require spiritual heroism. Little things make all the difference. This is true in many life relationships. In marriage, it is not the birthday or anniversary gifts which shape the fabric of the relationship, it is the phone calls during the day to say, “I love you,” or the small acts of consideration, companionship and love (though the presents certainly help). When our children bring home a project for Mother’s Day or Father’s Day our hearts are filled with joy, even though these creations are objectively junk (please don’t share with my children). Why? Because it is a genuine expression of love. The same is true in our relationship with God. The little things make all the difference. The way we talk to others, the manner in which we conduct our business dealings, our concentration during prayer, our commitment to daily Torah learning, our willingness to give charity, these are the little things which have such a dramatic impact. The Torah and our history are filled with stories of great people making enormous sacrifices for God. But day to day life is filled with the opportunities to do small things for God. These are the “eikev” moments. The little things that at first glance seem so insignificant that you can just step on them with your heel, yet, these are the very things which determine our spiritual identity and relationship with God. If you are grumpy in the morning and push yourself to greet people with a smile, the sea will not split before you, but you have done something amazing. If you see someone in need and manage to step out of yourself and help them, God will not call out your name from the heavens, but you have furthered your relationship with Him. If you are exhausted after a long day of work but manage to carve out some time to learn Torah, you won’t see the lightning and hear the thunder of Sinaitic revelation, but you have shown your Father how truly committed you are.
We must find the strength to stop trampling and start building with the small bricks of “eikev” accomplishment. God promises that He is waiting for us and ready to reciprocate our efforts. May we find the courage the first small step and feel the blessing of His love in the journey ahead.
“And it will be, because you will heed these ordinances and keep them and perform, that the Lord, your God, will keep for you the covenant and the kindness that He swore to your forefathers.” (Devorim 7:12)
In the opening verse of this week’s Parsha, Moshe creates a simple paradigm – if we live up to the word of God, God will deliver on the promises He made to the Patriarchs. For the fledging Jewish nation more important than the promises of livestock and produce was the promise of protection and victory in the wars against the kingdoms of Canaan. Moshe reminds us that in the same way that God brought Pharaoh to his knees, He can and will do the same with Canaanite kingdoms.
Moshe continues and says, “And the Lord, your God, will drive out those nations from before you, little by little. You will not be able to destroy them quickly, lest the beasts of the field outnumber you (7:22).” The battle for Canaan will not be quick. Not because our enemies are too fierce. But rather, out of concern that if we conquer more land than we can settle, wild animals will overrun these conquered areas and pose a threat to the nearby inhabitants. What a strange statement? Moshe has just told the people that there is going to be Divine protection and intervention and yet, now we are worried about the beasts of the field? The same God who can bend and manipulate the laws of nature can certainly keep the animals at bay. The same God who will instill fear into the hearts of the Canaanite soldiers could also instill fear within the animals causing them to retreat from before the Jewish people. How are we to understand this statement from Moshe?
The Modgitzer Rebbe (Rav Shaul Yedidyah Elazar of Modgitz) provides an amazing insight. When forced to fight man must draw on his animalistic instincts. When forced to kill, man gives up (loses) some part of his humanity. Life often calls for such drastic measures. Wars must be waged for the needs of the nation and for the actualization of Jewish destiny. The solider must kill; the soldier must be prepared to take the life of another if this is what the mission calls for. However, there is a reality that must be acknowledged. There is collateral damage on a personal level. After fighting a war, after taking a life – the soldier is no longer the same. Once those feelings and instincts that allowed one to kill have been unleashed it is not easy to simply bottle them up. This, explains the Rebbe, is the meaning of the pasuk. Why not just go to war with all of the Canaanite nations at once? Why will God drive them out ‘little by little’? To which God answers, “Pen Tirbeh Alecha Chayas HaSadeh – Lest the beasts of the field become too much upon you.” The beasts to which the Torah refers are not the animals that inhabit the land of Israel – but rather, the animal that dwells within. God explains, “If I have you engage in constant fighting, constant bloodshed, constant war – the animal within will overwhelm you and can extinguish your humanity. Therefore, I will clear out the nations slowly – you will have to fight – but you will also have time to heal. The mission will be accomplished but at a slower pace to allow for the preservation of the Tzelem Elokim (the Divine Image) within each and every solider.”
The Rebbe’s insight teaches us a valuable lesson. What we do, determines who we are. The actions we engage in – shape and mold our very character and essence. If we want to become good and holy people we must engage in good and holy behaviors. Yet, at times we engage in certain activities that we know are detrimental (to our body or soul) but we convince ourselves that this action will not color who we are. “Pen Tirbeh Alecha Chayas HaSadeh”, if we act like the animal – the inner animal will dominate and eclipse the beauty and holiness I possess within.
Our actions define us; our actions solidify our identity. Let us find the strength to make the right decisions and choices but when we fall and when we fail, let us find the courage to rein in the beasts of the field and renew ourselves B’tzelem Elokim.
V’haya Eikev Tishme’un…Ushmartem V’asisem Osam…
Rabbi Silber shares a beautiful thought from Rav Levi Yitzchak. We know that the torah admonishes us to be mindful and conscious of the smaller mitzvos. Shabbos, kashrus, and taharas hamishpacha are not our greatest struggles, but we often overlook the smaller, less challenging mitzvos. Rav Levi Yitzchak sees another lesson that we can learn from the parsha. When Yosef tells the brothers about his dream, the torah tells us, V’aviv shamar es hadavar, and Yaakov watched the episode. Rashi tells us that shamar in this context means that Yaakov eagerly anticipated the moment that the dreams would become a reality. The Rebbe tells us that here also, the word ushmartem is to be understood in the same way. When we have opportunities to accomplish mitzos we should feel fortunate. However, when we do not have the time or opportunity to actively accomplish certain mitzvos, how to we respond? Rav Levi Yitzchak tells us that the torah is challenging us to yearn and eagerly anticipate the opportunities to fulfill the mitzvos even when we do not find the opportunities to accomplish them all. What is our underlying posture when we do not have the time, energy or resources to accomplish what we would like? It should always be a ushmartem – an eager anticipation and pining for those moments and opportunities even when we know full well that they may not materialize as we had hoped.