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    The mystery of Ekev

    July 25th, 2021

    What a strange word “Ekev” is (Deut. 7:12).

    The sense of the word is clearly “in consequence”. If you obey God’s commands, you will in consequence receive a reward from On High.

    The word has some connection with the Hebrew for a heel, but why?

    According to the Midrash it recalls the patriarch Jacob (Ya’akov), who entered the world holding on to his brother’s heel. So Ekev indicates something that follows that which precedes it.

    Rashi derives a lesson from the fact that people tend to grind seemingly important things into the ground with their heel, so a person who treats an apparently minor behest lightly loses a Heavenly reward. Such a person thinks the “minor” command is insignificant and dispensable, but God does not share this opinion.

    Nachmanides draws attention to the round shape of the heel and suggests that someone who misunderstands the value of a certain command does not necessarily push it out of the Torah but finds a roundabout reason to obey it.

    Reward or punishment? – Ekev

    July 25th, 2021

    The sidra devotes considerable attention to the theological problem of reward and punishment.

    Simplistically, it tells us that if you do a mitzvah you will be rewarded, and if you sin you will be punished.

    But life doesn’t work that way. There are people who are wicked and cruel and seem to prosper. There are some who are pious and obedient and still suffer deprivation.

    The Psalmist (37:25) does not accept this; he says at the end of the Grace After Meals, “I have never seen a righteous man forsaken”. The Psalmist must have been a lucky man, but others are not so fortunate.

    Maimonides tells us that it all depends on the nature and quality of the deed. Not every good deed nor every sin is treated equally. Nor does a reward or punishment follow the good or evil deed immediately. Sometimes the consequence of the deed takes a long time to emerge, possibly only occurring in Heaven.

    Changed but the same – Ekev

    July 25th, 2021

    Last week our Torah reading contained the first paragraph of the Shema. This week we find the second paragraph.

    The first paragraph puts studying and teaching the commandments before laying tefillin; the second paragraph puts tefillin first.

    The Lubavitcher Rebbe suggests that first we perceive the duty of the individual whilst the second time we are speaking of the community.

    There are two dimensions in a person’s spiritual life. In the first case the individual exerts him- or herself to reach God by means of personal thought; in the second the community has a religious practice which is a mark of group identity, and people should not carry it out routinely but delve into the mitzvah and find its message.

    The threefold task – Va’et’channan

    July 18th, 2021

    Moses tells the people to listen to the commandments and do three things – to study, observe and do them (Deut. 5:1).

    The duty of studying the laws is discussed in the Gemara Kiddushin 40b. It asks which is more important, study or practice. It concludes that study is more important because it leads to practice. If you know what is required of you, your mind will lead you to carry out the task.

    Why then are there two words (ush’martem, “observe” and la’asotam, “do”) about carrying out the task? Is there a difference between observing and doing?

    It depends on how you understand the verbal root sh-m-r. Saadia Ga’on suggests that it means “to remember”, which means that we must not only study the laws but maintain them mentally.

    However, if we interpret the verb as “protect”, that makes a great difference. We must not let the law be whittled away or be squeezed dry of meaning.

    The opening chapter of Pir’kei Avot tells us to make a fence around the Torah.

    Body & soul – Va’et’channan

    July 18th, 2021

    The Torah portion begins with Moses speaking. He says Va’et’channan el HaShem – “I besought the Lord” (Deut. 3:28).

    The verb he uses is Hitpa’el, reflexive. The Hitpa’el is used in such phrases as “I wash myself”, “I dress myself”.

    In time of prayer, it suggests that the person (in this case Moses) does not stand or sit politely and quietly, and piously concentrate on his words and thoughts. It indicates that the whole person should be engaged in prayer, both body and soul.

    One of the best known Jewish prayer customs – shockling or swaying – is an illustration of this notion. It derives from the passage in the Psalms, kol atzmotai tomar’na, “All my bones speak out” (35:10).

    Samson Raphael Hirsch tells us that the words mean, “Every part of me shall speak”.