|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)|
|רְאֵה, אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם–הַיּוֹם: בְּרָכָה, וּקְלָלָה.||Look, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse:|
|אֶת-הַבְּרָכָה–אֲשֶׁר תִּשְׁמְעוּ, אֶל-מִצְוֹת יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתכֶם, הַיּוֹם.||blessing, if you hold to the mitzvot of HaShem your God, which you are given this day;|
|וְהַקְּלָלָה, אִם-לֹא תִשְׁמְעוּ אֶל-מִצְוֹת יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, וְסַרְתֶּם מִן-הַדֶּרֶךְ, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם הַיּוֹם: לָלֶכֶת, אַחֲרֵי אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים–אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יְדַעְתֶּם.||and curse, if you do not hold to the mitzvot of HaShem your God, but instead turn aside from the way which I show you this day, and go after other gods, which you don’t even know. (Deut.11.26-28)|
|וְהָיָה, כִּי יְבִיאֲךָ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר-אַתָּה בָא-שָׁמָּה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ–וְנָתַתָּה אֶת-הַבְּרָכָה עַל-הַר גְּרִזִים, וְאֶת-הַקְּלָלָה עַל-הַר עֵיבָל.||When HaShem your God brings you into the land you are about to enter, you shall set the blessing upon mount Gerizim, and the curse upon mount Ebal. (Deut. 11.29)|
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.
In contrast to other religious paths, Judaism offers spiritual growth within a clear and coherent framework. The word halakhah – our “path” – is understood more commonly as our “law” because of the many mitzvot (“obligations”) which serve us as signposts along the way. Our parashat hashavua for this week contains fifty-three such mitzvot, and each mitzvah commands us equally, according to Jewish tradition – civil, moral, and commercial law all come together here in a way that isn’t easy for our category-driven minds. Yet our tradition is to regard each mitzvah, each detail of our path, with the same kavanah, the same intentionality and mindfulness. We are to bring our kavanah to care we bring to settling a fight, restoring lost items, and respecting society’s vulnerable.
It’s a journey. And it is useful to think of halakhah as road law, actually – because of the myriad of laws governing our use of back roads, main street and highways, you and I can go forth on our daily journeys expecting, under normal circumstances, to stay safe as we go about answering our desires and needs for the day. The mitzvot you practice are meant to lead you somewhere. Shabbat is the epitome of that “somewhere” – it is meant to be the high point of our week, the day on which we know that we have, spiritually, arrived, even if the arrival is only partial. Summoning the kavanah for this is not always easy.
And just like a road journey, there are days when, spiritually, we can barely see for the storms. In the darkness, we anxiously look for the next road sign, struggling to to lose our way, and to bring any passengers we have with us – loved ones, children – home safely. These are the days when we most need the little details of all those mitzvot. They give us something small and regular and dependable to focus our souls, as we try not to get lost.
All those mitzvot are there to help lead you toward your kavanah, your intentionality, for Shabbat, so that it can become a shavat, “resting” of the soul. Lighting candles at sunset sparks a mood shift; singing L’kha Dodi as we bring in Shabbat at the shul triggers relaxation; having the family and friends gather for an unrushed dinner can redeem the whole week. We all have a different way into kavanah.
May your Shabbat be for you each week a chance to delight in all that is offered you, every little detail that reminds you to take care with each moment of our short, precious lives, and to come to know yourself in a whole new way which was, nevertheless, always there.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time
(T. S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”, Four Quartets)