Shabbat Ekev: Listen With Care

Which of us is not angry, disappointed, even resentful, of the way our lives have changed in the past few years? Aren’t we all getting very tired of the stress served up daily by the media, infusing our every interaction with each other?
Of course, there is more than one response to this situation. In Jewish tradition there is always more than one answer, even as the old joke goes: “on the one hand…and on the other hand.” The story goes that a Rabbi once listened carefully to two litigants, and after each finished her complaint, said, “you’re right.” A witness to the proceedings objected, “Rabbi, they can’t both be right.” The Rabbi turned to that witness and responded, “you’re right.”
The more carefully one listens to each person, the more we can hear some whisper of truth in that person – and then of course this leads to the realization that truth itself is complicated and difficult and always partial in our lives.
In mindfulness practice, we are taught to slow down, to take a breath, and to seek to balance the stress we feel with a spiritual teaching: 1. each human being is created in the Image of G*d, 2. you are not required to do all the work, just your part, or 3. all Israel are responsible, each for each other. In such a way, we can be reminded to take care to listen to each other with the respect we wish to receive ourselves – slowly, with kindness and mercy.
This week’s Torah text seems to urge us to take care, and listen carefully, as a mitzvah in itself. The parashah is called Ekev, which means “as a result of” or “therefore.” Specifically:
  וְהָיָה עֵקֶב תִּשְׁמְעוּן, אֵת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים הָאֵלֶּה, וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם וַעֲשִׂיתֶם, אֹתָם–וְשָׁמַר ה’ אֱלֹהֶיךָ לְךָ, אֶת-הַבְּרִית וְאֶת-הַחֶסֶד, אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע, לַאֲבֹתֶיךָ. If you will take care to listen well and do the mitzvot commanded to you, then HaShem your G*d will take care with you and the covenant and the mercy promised for all generations (Devarim 7.12)
The word ekev literally means “heel.” This led ancient scholars to comment that we are being warned specifically about the mitzvot that we generally “trample with our heels” (Rashi), i.e. those that we dismiss as not being important. Maimonides suggests that the mitzvot in question are those for which the reward will come only at the end, i.e. the obligation will seem thankless. An early modern Eastern European Rabbi suggested that the reference is to the generation which belongs to the “heels of the Messiah,” meaning a generation suffering the “labor pains” associated with the End of Days. That generation is considered to be the spiritually lowest of all those living in Exile.
On this Shabbat, consider:
what mitzvah do you trample by letting the stress get the better of you, turning you toward anger and away from mercy?
What mitzvah do you need to recommit to doing even though you don’t feel thanked for it?
To what voice do you need to listen more carefully?
We so much need to take care of each other and feel cared for ourselves. May it be that on this Shabbat we take another step toward finding consolation for ourselves, through offering it, in small and caring ways, toward each other.
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Shabbat Ekev: What Happens When You Listen

This week our parashat hashavua (parsha, “section”, of the week) is named Ekev. The word literally means “heel”, as in Jacob/Yaakov’s name, given to him because he emerged from the womb holding on to his brother Esav’s heel. This same word ekev paired with another conjugation of shema leads the Jewishly attuned ear to an entirely different place, that of the Akedah – possibly the most troubling Torah text of all, with which we struggle on Rosh HaShanah. Ekev, ekev, because of, due to, on account of…..

Parashat Ekev begins with this verse (Deut. 7.12):

יב  וְהָיָה עֵקֶב תִּשְׁמְעוּן, אֵת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים הָאֵלֶּה, וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם וַעֲשִׂיתֶם, אֹתָם–וְשָׁמַר י-ה אֱלֹקיךָ לְךָ, אֶת-הַבְּרִית וְאֶת-הַחֶסֶד, אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע, לַאֲבֹתֶיךָ.

It shall be that because you listen to these just teachings, and guard and do them, that the HaShem your G*d will guard for you the Covenant and the Covenant-loyalty sworn to your ancestors

V’hayah ekev tish’meh’un, “it will be on the heels of your listening”. The expectation here is that listening leads to a real result. One might see it as “hear and obey” but the great teachers of our tradition offer us much more to consider.

One insight is based upon a very close look at the first few words: “According to the joy and a person’s desire to fulfill the mitzvot, so one merits to hear, to attain, and to fulfill them….If you take the responsibility for the mitzvah upon yourself in joy, by means of this you will be able to listen.” 

This teaching from the Sefat Emet takes an ancient Talmudic comment connecting the word V’hayah with joy, and invites us to consider that v’hayah is for each of us a relative concept, linked to the satisfaction we take in the mitzvah.  מצוה גוררת מצוה – “The reward of a mitzvah is a mitzvah.” In the moment when we are to recite the blessing before doing the mitzvah, we have the opportunity to become mindful of this amazing idea: that every moment is pregnant with meaning, if we are able to listen.

This is the ultimate salve for the burnout some of us begin to feel in our weaker moments. Not thanked enough? not having the work noticed enough? We all have that kind of childish moment when we want to be noticed doing a good thing. At that moment it is up to our more grown-up self to reassure the child within: stay in touch with the joy of the mitzvah, have fun with it because it is a mitzvah, and, as the Sefat Emet teaches, we will finally understand the meaning of the Shema, “to love G*d with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your resources.”

This ancient Jewish teaching is the source of the Western ethical idea that whatever we do, we should do our best to do it well. Whatever we are doing is not only about our small self, but has an effect, as we know, on the larger shared Self of the World within which we live our lives.

First, one must learn to listen carefully. Not simply waiting until another has finished speaking so that we can say our truth, but listening in such a way that it has a real effect. Maybe it allows you to be a better listener, not defensive or dismissive; maybe it allows you to begin to consider trading in your truth for a better one. A possibly apocryphal but still great quote attributed to the economist John Maynard Keynes can lead our way: when accused of changing his position on some important issue of economics, he is said to have replied, “When the facts change, sir, I change my mind. What do you do?”

If we listen, only if, says the Torah, then something good will happen. It is an interesting test. How do you change when you really, really listen? It’s something we can practice at any moment. Sometimes we need to listen to ourselves, sometimes to something outside.

We are promised that alert, respectful, careful listening will lead to something – to change, and, finally, to growth of the spirit – when, finally, one comes to a place where one truly feels that the reward of the mitzvah is the mitzvah, and the sense that one is closer to the Source of the mitzvot. And you will know when you are there, because you will feel the joy.

Shabbat Ekev: Seeing What Is Being Born

איזהו חכם? הרואה את הנולד – Ayzehu hakham? HaRo’eh et haNolad, “who is wise? One who sees what is being born.” (Pirke Avot 2.9) So few of us, then, can think of ourselves as wise. We try in so many ways to affect our future, would give anything to know our future, to affect it in just the way we wish, or at least to know what will happen at times of great desire or fear. But we can’t even clearly understand all the results of our own actions.

Our parashat hashavua is called Ekev, meaning “because of” or “as a result of”; literally “on the heels of”. The parashah seems to be offering us a reassuring picture of our future: it begins with a description of the good that will follow because we have responded to the summons of the Shema to listen, to obey, to carry out the mitzvot. Later on in the parashah, we get the specific ethical forecast (later this section will be excerpted from the Torah to become part of the Shema section of our siddur):

“The rain will fall in season, the former rain and the latter, and you will be able to harvest your grain, your wine and your oil. There will be grass in the fields for the animals, and you will eat enough to be satisfied. Be careful not to misunderstand this, turning toward other sources of blessing, for then G-d’s anger will be kindled and the heavens will be sealed up – there will be no rain and no harvest, and you will perish quickly from what was a good land.” (Devarim 11.14-17)

It is in the last few generations that we have seen this description actually become true, ironically enough after a period in which modern humans began to scoff at language such as this. Ha! we said. Ethics don’t affect the rainfall or the harvest – look at how an unethical person may still be a successful one.

Our mistake was in assuming our own frame of reference for this warning, instead of understand the Biblical proportions. After a century of misunderstanding the planet and its needs, turning toward materialism and the profit motive as sources of blessing, we are, after all, experiencing precisely this: the heavens are sealed when they should be open, and rain falls not in its season, and we begin to see the consequences in harvests of hunger, and cynicism, and fear.

None of us could understand that the forces of progress and science were anything other than a blessing, and they do carry blessings – none of us could see what other forces were also being set in motion. The same is true of capitalism, or democracy, or introducing rabbits into Australia, or a random kind gesture to a stranger. We are not wise, and it is hard to see what is being born in the moment.

But after enough experience, and some learning from those who came before us, perhaps we can begin to develop the habit of taking for granted that something might be in the offing that we cannot see. Perhaps we might gain the humility of ceasing to assume that we already know the future. And then we will understand the parashah’s beginning: וְהָיָה עֵקֶב תִּשְׁמְעוּן – v’hayah ekev tishme’un, “And it will be because you listened.”

Parashat Ekev: showing up is safer than hiding

A minyan is traditionally defined as ten Jewish men but by Progressive Jews as ten self-identified and committed Jews of any gender; any way you define it, what it means is that we need critical mass. 

What is critical mass? it’s the number you need to get the job done. In order to evoke holiness in Jewish prayer, you need a minyan. In order to study Torah, our tradition teaches, you need at least two students.  Social justice is more tricky: in order to get a possible new law on the Oregon ballot, you need 116,284 names on a petition. I know; I’ve just trained to become a signature collector for a measure on the 2014 ballot to enact marriage equality in the state of Oregon.

This week’s parashah underscores the Jewish emphasis on individual responsibility for the group’s well-being in the very first verse: If you all obey these laws and guard them carefully, God will guard the Covenant established with each of you. (Devarim 7.12) The laws must be obeyed and guarded by all of us, and then God will guard the Covenant made us as it affects us personally, one by one.

The word if in this parasha gives it its name: ekev “on the heels of” in Hebrew. That is how closely act is followed by reaction in Jewish religious belief. Or, as we might say, “what goes around comes around”. It may take a while, but it’s always recognizable when it comes around again, whatever “it” is for you or me. Consider: we see larger social trends, and we can feel, if not always articulate, how we know our acts have been a small part of what has added up to that trend. 

Do you see less litter on the streets? you, because you do not ignore the presence of garbage but take care of it, are a small part of that trend. Do you see more justice in the world? you will if you do not ignore the presence of injustice, and take care of it, in whatever ways you may find to do so. And not only where you happen to notice it –  as the haftarah for this week reminds us, we are called upon to be rodfey tzedek, “pursuers of justice”:

Listen to Me, all who pursue justice, all who seek the Eternal!

Look to the rock from which you were hewn, the quarry from which you were cut.

Look back to Avraham your father, and to Sarah who bore you.

(Isaiah 50.51.1-2)

It is not enough to quietly be in favor of change, to quietly approve of movements which seek greater justice. We have to show up. Our tradition urges us to show up and to act to guard others if we ourselves would seek to be safe. If we look to the rock of our tradition, let it remind us “to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with G-d” (Micah), and show up in the pursuit of justice, we may suffer and we may not always succeed, but we will know that we are keeping the Covenant, and that it will keep us.

As we come out of hiding, we the quiet ones in support of equality, and act for justice together, may we know justice in our individual lives – and peace in our hearts.