Our parashat hashavua, the part of the Torah we study this week, is called Ekev. The word refers to a certain sense of causality: “it will happen that all will be well with you because you follow the divine law” says Moshe to the Israelites: as a result of your devotion to this path, you can expect G*d to be devoted to you, as well, in the Covenant relationship you as a people have sworn to uphold.
The word עקב – ekev – infers the sense of something that follows on the heels of something else. The word ekev also means “heel.” Jacob was named Ya’akov because he was born holding on to the heel (ekev, ya’AKOV) of his twin brother Esav. This is not about coincidence but one thing happening because of another.
The Book Devarim, Deuteronomy, is full of a growing sense of urgency, as the people Israel stand on the edge of the river and wonder what the next steps might bring for their lives, veiled by water and roiled by the uncertainty of the future as they are. Our ancestors have responded to this sense of suspension – between the known “here” and the unknown of the מעבר – ma’avar, the transition they face. As they dive down below the level of פשט pshat, the “surface” level of understanding, their מדרש midrash digging down to deeper levels of seeing derive different insights at different times through different contexts.
Some interpretations are for our personal consideration:
Rashi interprets the use of this word ekev as an allusion to those mitzvot which a person tramples with her heels—the Torah is telling us to respect all the mitvot equally, even those that seem less significant to our finite minds.
Ibn Ezra interprets it in the sense of “in the end” (i.e., “in the heels of,” or in the sense that the heel is at the extremity of the body)—the reward of a mitzvah following on the heels of the mitzvah.
Some interpretations are philosophical, or mystical:
Rabbeinu Bakhyah sees suggestion that we understand and experience only the “heel” of a mitzvah, and cannot appreciate its full measure and worth.
The Baal HaTurim gives a gematriatic explanation: the word ekev is used because it has a numerical value of 172—the number of words in the Aseret haDibrot, the Ten Utterances we heard at Sinai.
Some interpretations are national:
the Tzemach Tzedek sees the use of the word ekev as a reference to ikveta d’meshicha, the generation of “the heels of the Mashiakh.” It is taught that the last generation of the Exile is called “the heels of the Mashiakh” by our tradition for two reasons. First, because human beings will reach their lowest spiritual level before the End of Days comes, and second, paradoxically, it is also the generation in which the approaching presence of the End of Days will be most felt – the footsteps of the Mashiakh will be heard.
There is much in Jewish tradition that speaks of the End of Days with apprehension. “Let the End of Days come, but I do not wish to witness it,” said one Talmudic Rabbi. It will be a time when the center will not hold, when chaos will not seem like an enjoyable variation on a boring life but a maelstrom in which nothing is reliable, and no one is dependable.
“Repent one day before your death,” our tradition urges. Of course, we cannot know that day; but perhaps under the teaching is a sense that when you are afraid of your death, aware of your mortality and its limits, feeling not at all empowered or able to meet the chaos of a day, one remedy may be to do a mitzvah. Every mitzvah brings with it, after all, some small sense that one is still capable of acting meaningfully in the world – the reward, however small it may seem, that follows upon its heels.
And then, even in the face of chaos, of fear, and of meaninglessness – all of which carry death in their wings – in the aftermath of any small mitzvah, any little candle in the wind, we will still be able listen for the steps of hope.