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Ekev 5783     | Rabbi David Wolkenfeld

08/09/2023 01:25:03 PM


Underfoot Mitzvot

If you were approached without warning and asked to name “the most important mitzvah” what would you answer?

This morning I want to suggest that the most important mitzvah is the one you do not yet observe.

There are many ways to classify mitzvot. There are commands and prohibitions. There are time-bound mitzvot which can only be done at certain times of the day or only on certain days of the year, and there are mitzvot which are not bound by any special time. There are interpersonal mitzvot and religious mitzvot. And there are mitzvot which are foundational to our relationship with God as Jews and mitzvot which seem to be more peripheral to our relationship with God. Idolatry, for example, is the Torah’s most condemned sin and, for the Torah, embracing or rejecting idolatry seems to be the primary determinant of an individual’s religious status. Later on in Tanakh, Shabbat joins idolatry as an indispensable and utterly foundational element of Jewish identity. 

But Parashat Ekev begins with a novel and distinct taxonomy of the importance of mitzvot which, to my knowledge, has no precedent elsewhere in Jewish literature.

וְהָיָ֣ה ׀ עֵ֣קֶב תִּשְׁמְע֗וּן אֵ֤ת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים֙ הָאֵ֔לֶּה וּשְׁמַרְתֶּ֥ם וַעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֹתָ֑ם וְשָׁמַר֩ יְה אֱ-לֹהֶ֜יךָ לְךָ֗ אֶֽת־הַבְּרִית֙ וְאֶת־הַחֶ֔סֶד אֲשֶׁ֥ר נִשְׁבַּ֖ע לַאֲבֹתֶֽיךָ׃

And if you do obey וְהָיָ֣ה ׀ עֵ֣קֶב תִּשְׁמְע֗וּן these rules and observe them carefully, the LORD your God will maintain faithfully for you the covenant that God made on oath with your fathers:

The word “ekev” that gives the parasha its name, in its plain sense, means something like the English word “because.” The Torah is setting forth a simple rule. God will abide by the terms of the covenant with our ancestors because we obey God’s command וְהָיָ֣ה ׀ עֵ֣קֶב תִּשְׁמְע֗וּן. This is the plain sense meaning as Ibn Ezra makes clear. 

But Rashi is drawn to another interpretation of this unusual word. “Ekev” is also the heel of one’s foot in Biblical Hebrew. Remember that Yaakov was so named because he was holding onto the heel of his twin brother at birth. Rashi therefore tells us that וְהָיָ֣ה ׀ עֵ֣קֶב תִּשְׁמְע֗וּן means that we accrue Divine reward when we observe the mitzvot that are customarily stepped over with the bottom of our feet.

Which mitzvot do we trample? 

One possible answer is that the trampled mitzvot are the Hukim, mitzvot which, according to the Gemara in Yoma frequently quoted by Rashi, have no readily apparent rational explanation. The nations of the world, even Satan, mock us and tease us for our observance of Kashrut, for example, since we cannot explain it to them in rational terms. But I do not think those mitzvot are the source for mocking and disdain in the multicultural post-modern world of today. Sure Jews don’t eat forbidden species, but doesn’t everyone have a special diet? Kashrut is not all that onerous compared to a macrobiotic “level four vegan” with a peanut allergy. 

Perhaps the trampled mitzvot  are the mitzvot which are counter-cultural and create dissonance with the values or way of life of our neighbors. For example, some Roman writers considered Jews lazy because of our practice of not working one day out of every seven and we were considered misanthropes by other classical writers because of our insistence to only worship One God rather than adopting the religious beliefs and practices of all people.  But those examples show that the reaction that Judaism elicits among others says more about them than it does about us. 

For this reason I do not think that it is plausible that the Torah is promising special reward for observing those mitzvot that our neighbors find most odd or that is the most awkward mitzvah to perform while being observed by a gentile. (By the way, the top-three mitzvot that are most awkward to perform while being observed by a gentile are Kiddush Levanah, Hoshannah Rabbah thwacking, and rioting for pizza on the night that Pesach ends).

In every generation and in every location there are mitzvot that are easy for our gentile neighbors to understand and there are mitzvot that are hard for them to understand. Christians share half of their scriptures with us and are familiar with the core stories that create our identity. Muslims have a rich legal tradition and appreciate how law and faith can be two sides of the same coin and not opposites. Hindus have a preserved religious system of purity laws and can appreciate our own rules of tumah v’taharah (both the ones we maintain as well as those that remain only on the books). The religion that is most like Judaism and the religion that is the least like Judaism really depends on how one chooses to make the comparison. This too seems arbitrary. 

And while persevering and remaining loyal in the face of adversity, challenge, and even scorn is admirable, there is something perverse about an ethos, of “credo quia absurdum” a Latin phrase that means, “I believe it because it is absurd.” Relishing the inscrutable nature of a mitzvah and embracing the scorn of others seems inconsistent with a Torah that was given by a wise and loving God to improve our lives and improve the world. 

So what are the mitzvot that we trample underfoot and why does the Torah promise special reward for performing them?

Perhaps וְהָיָ֣ה ׀ עֵ֣קֶב תִּשְׁמְע֗וּן is a reference to the mitzvah that we step over, not because we don’t love Judaism or aren’t eager to perform mitzvot, but because this detail of observant life seems to be a bridge too far, it requires just a bit too much attention or knowledge or focus in the midst of our busy lives. 

The Torah is reminding us that the grass is greener, not on the other side of the fence, but wherever you tend to your garden. The more we invest our time and energy in any endeavor, לפום צערא אגרא, so too will be the satisfaction we derive from that endeavor. It’s true for learning how to knit, or how to play volleyball, or how to play guitar, and it is also true for Judaism as well. The Torah promises so much more additional blessing when we engage with mitzvot in a conscientious way rather than a casual and haphazard way.

And, if we internalize that every mitzvah is an invitation for connection and an opportunity for transcendence, the mitzvah we step over could be precisely the opportunity that we need for connection and for blessing.

If the laws of serving warm food or preparing a salad in a Shabbat compliant way seem too complicated and overwhelming, let’s study them together so that preparing for Shabbat lunch can become an opportunity for serving God. If someone is careful to say berachot before eating, but often forgets to say them after eating, they can try to be more mindful and in so doing cultivate an ethos of gratitude and appreciation. If you come religiously, literally, to shul every Shabbat morning, try joining us on a weekday and discover the blessing of being part of a community of people striving to attain holiness in their everyday lives.

We are just a few weeks away from Elul, the holidays, and the season of introspection and teshuvah. There is a tendency to enter into the work of this season with a spirit of regret and shame and fear. But for now, for Parashat Ekev, we have the opportunity to think about what has been overlooked, not out of a sense of guilt, but with a spirit of noticing a missed opportunity and deciding that we don’t want to keep missing out on what that opportunity can offer us. 

And everything that is true with regard to mitzvot and our relationship with God is true as well with our relationships with other people. Yes, we will need to spend time in the coming weeks apologizing to those whom we have hurt. But for now, for Parashat Ekev, we can think about the overlooked relationships that with a bit more care and attention could become a source of blessing in our lives.

Each one of us is on a journey and the scope and path that journey takes needs to be authentic for each of us. That means we all have to do this work for ourselves. As Elul approaches, we can look to the mitzvot that we step over, and we can look to the relationships we have overlooked, not out of guilt, but as precious opportunities to bring blessing into our lives and into our homes and into our community.

Mon, July 22 2024 16 Tammuz 5784