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.

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Shabbat BeShalakh: What Do You See in the Sea?

This week, the Shabbat of the parashah BeShalakh, is also called Shabbat Shirah, the “Shabbat of the Song”, in honor of the fact that on this week we read the Song of the Sea in the scroll. The Israelites have crossed over through the Sea on dry ground, and the Egyptians who pursued them have drowned in those same waters.

As our ancestors gather on the far shore, astonished by what they’ve experienced, one might imagine that they were speechless. Perhaps there was no sound at all for a few moments, from that whole motley group. Imagine them: self-identified Israelites (those who held a family memory of descent from the sons of Jacob), and with them, others – those who were attracted to the strong family culture of the people of Israel even under the stress of slavery in Egypt. Finally, there were those who saw a good thing when the Hebrew slaves made their miraculous jailbreak, and went with them through the suddenly-opened gate to freedom.

There were a lot of them. They did not all know each other. And now, with a moment to breathe, they looked back at the way they had come, at the Sea, and then at each other. Now what?

They sang. We call it Shirat haYam, the “Song of the Sea”.

Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dances. And Miriam called to them: “Sing to G-d, for G-d has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider G-d has thrown into the sea.” (Ex.15.20-21)

The first expression of the refugees is joy, and gratitude. And within this rejoicing, one finds a very personal expression of religious awakening. First, one becomes aware of one’s own joy; then, upon reflection, one begins to feel gratitude for the happiness. This is the first step toward a personal sense of religious awareness: the dawning knowledge that one is grateful.

Moses and the people of Israel sang: I will sing to G-d, for G-d has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider has G-d thrown into the sea. G-d is my strength and song, G-d is become my salvation. This is my G-d, and I will praise, my parents’ G-d, and I will exalt (Ex.15.1-2)

This song then expresses the next steps in religious awareness: beyond gratitude for my good fortune, and onward to the recognition that I could never have escaped the Egyptians alone. A strength greater than my own, something beyond my own small intellectual capacity, brought me to this moment. I could not have planned this and carried it out alone; circumstances were also aligned just exactly right. I become aware of something beyond me, which is a part of me, and carries me, too.

This is my G-d – I reach my own sense of  awe, of that which I respect as greater than me, but also mine.

my parents’ G-d – only now can I begin to understand what my parents have revered; only now can I start to see the ethics of their lives, that which they care about most.

Now what? what happens after we cross the Sea and realized that now, we are on our own? When this door opens, it shows the Israelites – and us – the way forward into the future. And that future is much wandering, bumbling our way toward a distant vision, with lots of false starts, lots of dead ends, and some days when we’ll wonder if we truly are on the right path. The religiously aware path is a long one, but it does offer us certain steps toward the Promise of wholeness within ourselves, with our families, our tribes, our people, and the world. It begins with G-d and ends with G-d, and every day is one more opportunity to become aware.

This is not esoteric knowledge: all of us cross our own Seas, and all of us have eyes and hearts to see. In a wonderfully subversive ancient teaching, it is written that “a servant girl saw at the Sea what Isaiah, Ezekiel, and all other prophets did not behold”. (Mekhilta)

This Song of the Sea united the refugees on the shores of the sea, and it unites us still. The Song is incorporated into our daily prayers; we sing it whenever we recite the mi kamokha. Wherever you are on this Shabbat, may you find yourself with the Jewish people in spirit as we offer up, once again this year, our chorus of joy for awareness of our reasons for gratitude for that which is beyond us, and blesses our existence.