Parashat Ekev תשפ”ב

In this week’s portion, Ekev (Deuteronomy 7:12-16), Hashem promises the Jewish people that if they keep the Torah, He will guarantee that all material matters will be perfect. 

(יב) וְהָיָה עֵקֶב תִּשְׁמְעוּן אֵת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים הָאֵלֶּה וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֹתָם וְשָׁמַר יְדֹוָד אֱלֹהֶיךָ לְךָ אֶת הַבְּרִית וְאֶת הַחֶסֶד אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע לַאֲבֹתֶיךָ:

(יג) וַאֲהֵבְךָ וּבֵרַכְךָ וְהִרְבֶּךָ וּבֵרַךְ פְּרִי בִטְנְךָ וּפְרִי אַדְמָתֶךָ דְּגָנְךָ וְתִירשְׁךָ וְיִצְהָרֶךָ שְׁגַר אֲלָפֶיךָ וְעַשְׁתְּרֹת צֹאנֶךָ עַל הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע לַאֲבֹתֶיךָ לָתֶת לָךְ:

(יד) בָּרוּךְ תִּהְיֶה מִכָּל הָעַמִּים לֹא יִהְיֶה בְךָ עָקָר וַעֲקָרָה וּבִבְהֶמְתֶּךָ:

(טו) וְהֵסִיר יְדֹוָד מִמְּךָ כָּל חֹלִי וְכָל מַדְוֵי מִצְרַיִם הָרָעִים אֲשֶׁר יָדַעְתָּ לֹא יְשִׂימָם בָּךְ וּנְתָנָם בְּכָל שׂנְאֶיךָ:

(טז) וְאָכַלְתָּ אֶת כָּל הָעַמִּים אֲשֶׁר יְדֹוָד אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ לֹא תָחוֹס עֵינְךָ עֲלֵיהֶם וְלֹא תַעֲבֹד אֶת אֱלֹהֵיהֶם כִּי מוֹקֵשׁ הוּא לָךְ

(12) This shall be the reward when you hearken to these ordinances, and you observe and perform them. Hashem your G-d will safeguard for you the covenant and the kindness that He swore to your forefathers.  (13) He will love you and bless you and multiply you, and He will bless the fruit of your womb and the fruits of your Land; your grain, your wine, and your oil; the offspring of your cattle and the flocks of your sheep and goats; on the Land the He swore to your forefathers to give you. (14) You will be the most blessed of all the peoples; there will be no infertile male or infertile female among you or among your animals. (15) Hashem will remove from you every illness; and all the bad maladies of Egypt that you knew – He will not put them upon you, but will put them upon all of your foes. (16) You will devour all the peoples that Hashem, your G-d, will deliver to you; your eye shall not pity them; you shall not worship their gods, for it is a snare for you. 

In the opening verse, the Torah uses the words והיה עקב תשמעון  which translates as when you harken. The Sages pick up on the unusual choice of the word עקב, which means “heel,” as in the heel of your foot. In context, instead of saying, “If you keep my commandments,” the Torah is saying “on the heels of” or “as a result of.” This Hebrew usage is uncommon. Realizing that Hashem carefully chose every word in the Torah for a specific reason, the Sages connect it (“ekev”) to a person’s heel. 

            The Sages explain that “heel” here refers to the treatment of commandments, which, feeling that they are unimportant, people tend to neglect and trample, so-to-speak, with the heel of their foot. People carefully keep the major commandments, but when it comes to the “small” ones, people think that they are  insignificant and pay them little mind. 

            It was these types of sins that King David feared on his day of judgment, as he said in Psalm 49:6:

(ו) לָמָּה אִירָא בִּימֵי רָע עֲוֹן עֲקֵבַי יְסוּבֵּנִי

6) Why should I be fearful in days of evil? Because the sins that I trod upon will surround me

The Sage Reish Lakish in the Talmud (Avoda Zara 18a) explains: 

דאמר רבי שמעון בן לקיש מאי דכתיב עון עקבי יסבני עונות שאדם דש בעקביו בעולם הזה מסובין לו ליום הדין

Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish said, “That which is stated ‘the sins I have trod upon will surround me’ means, that the sins that a person treads upon in this world, will surround him on his day of judgment.” 

            These “stepped on” sins will be one’s enemy on the day of judgment for he will be held accountable for not doing them. When an enemy confronts a person on one or two sides, he has a hope of vanquishing it. When he is blocked on three sides, he may be able to save himself by retreating through the escape corridor. But when he is surrounded, he is captured with no place to flee. This is the feeling that King David described: The sins that I have tread upon will surround me, trapping me. They pose a greater threat to me than even much greater sins. 

            This is the connection to the heel. The Torah informs us that if you keep all of my mitzvot, even the ones that people commonly transgress (trample with their heels) thinking that they are unimportant, then you will be worthy of all the great rewards that I have promised you. But if you choose to fulfill only the major and important ones, the great blessings will not be forthcoming. 

            Why are the seemingly minor mitzvot so important? Why will they be the ones to do us in on the day of judgment? 

            In reality, there is no such thing as an unimportant or insignificant mitzvah. If Hashem has given it, it is important for us, and we need to fulfill it. It has great meaning and depth, and we will benefit greatly from performing it. It will have a profound effect on our souls and make us better and holier people. 

Thinking that it is not “worth it” to expend the effort to perform a small mitzvah constitutes a terrible affront to Hashem, essentially accusing Him of bothering us with something trivial and unimportant. Every mitzvah, no matter how seemingly small, carries with it infinite good for our souls and will have a profound effect on us. 

            Rabbi Yaakov teaches us (Kiddushin 39b); שכר מצוה בהאי עלמא ליכא – There isn’t enough material wealth in this world to reward even one mitzvah. All of this world’s wealth is insufficient reward for even the smallest mitzvah because a mitzvah is a spiritual act and has infinite ramifications whereas material wealth is finite and limited. Only spiritual reward given to the soul in the world to come can properly reward a mitzvah. For this reason alone, we should not make light of even the smallest mitzvah, but there is more. 

The Torah comprises 613 commandments, which divide into two groups: 248 “do-s” – positive commandments to do something, such as put on Tefillin, and 365 “don’t do-s” – negative commandments not to do something such as do not steal and do not eat unkosher foods. Our Sages teach us that these numbers are not random. The 248 positive commandments correspond to the number of limbs in a person’s body, and the 365 correspond to the number of sinews. That there is a such a strong correspondence between the body and the mitzvot indicates that each of the 248 positive mitzvot targets one of the limbs in a person’s body, and each of the 365 negative mitzvot target one of the body’s sinews. What effect will they have on the limbs and sinews? The mitzvah’s holiness increases the holiness of that limb by decreasing its earthiness, and allows the person to get a little closer to Hashem Who is completely spiritual. 

            The correspondence of the 613 mitzvot to the human body brings out a subtle but important aspect of the mitzvot. Just as in the human body each limb and sinew works in tandem with every other limb and sinew to give life and health to the whole body, so, too, each of the 613 works in tandem with all of the others to bring spiritual perfection to the person. Think of a mitzvah as a spiritual exercise for a specific limb, much the way a body builder does a specific and different exercise with the weights to build and tone each of his muscles. Only by doing the entire regimen corresponding to all the muscle groups will his whole body be perfect. Imagine how silly a person would look if he only exercised his upper body and neglected his legs. Similarly, all of the mitzvot are necessary to create a perfect spiritual person. 

Doing mitzvot shares another important similarity to body building. Just as the body builder must repeat the specific exercises many times over an extended time before he will see results from his efforts, so, too, the mitzvot must be done many times consistently over a long period before one can perceive the effects of the mitzvot that he has done. When he reaches the point where he is able to see the effect that the mitzvot have had on him, he will be astounded by how much they have changed him for the better from the inside out.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       

            When we see the mitzvot as one unit, it is easy to appreciate how the omission of even one, no matter how small, will affect the balance of all the mitzvot and negatively affect the whole. Each is an integral part of the whole that interacts with, and influences, each other mitzvah in a very deep way. 

              This is why only when one is careful even with the mitzvot that he tends to “trample” with his heel, is he entitled to all the blessings. Omitting even one “small” mitzvah adversely affects all of the other mitzvot as well and ruins the whole.

            This is why the Mishna in Pirkei Avot says (2:1): 

(א) רַבִּי אוֹמֵר … וֶהֱוֵי זָהִיר בְּמִצְוָה קַלָּה כְּבַחֲמוּרָה, שֶׁאֵין אַתָּה יוֹדֵעַ מַתַּן שְׂכָרָן שֶׁל מִצְוֹת

 Rabbi Judah the Prince says: Be as careful with a “light” mitzvah as with a “heavy” one, because you do not know the reward for the mitzvot. 

            The commentaries are careful to point out that this applies only to positive mitzvot, the “dos.” But as far as the negative mitzvot, the “do nots” are concerned, the Torah’s punishment for that sin is a clear indication of its severity. Yet as to the positive mitzvot, there is no way to know which Hashem values more and pays more for, so-to-speak. 

            There is another very important factor that strongly impacts the reward one receives for performing a mitzvah. It is also taught in a Mishna in Pirkei Avot (5:23). 

(כג) בֶּן הֵא הֵא אוֹמֵר, לְפוּם צַעֲרָא אַגְרָא

The son of He He says: According to the pain, comes the reward. 

A person who does what seems to be an “easy” mitzvah, but which for him was difficult, the reward is commensurate to the difficulty he overcame. When evaluating our deeds, what is important to Hashem is how much we have put ourselves out for Him. The more we give of ourselves to Hashem, despite the difficulty or inconvenience, indicates a stronger commitment to Him. Hashem appreciates our efforts to fulfill His will, and therefore rewards us for those efforts. 

There is thus really no minor or small mitzvah. A seemingly “small mitzvah” may carry a great reward just because many people tend to ignore it, and I have chosen to do it against the trend not to bother with the “small stuff.” Indeed, by attributing importance to what may seem like an unimportant mitzvah, we endow it with importance, and it becomes an important mitzvah. 

The following famous story quoted in the book משל אבות  on Pirkei Avot illustrates this point. 

A wealthy man with a daughter to marry off, lost all of his wealth. He went to the Apter Rav to ask for a blessing and advice on how to obtain the money that he needed to pay for a wedding. The Rav asked him, “How much money do you need to pay for the wedding and how much do you have?” He said, “The wedding will cost me one thousand rubles and I have only one ruble.” The Rebbe told him to use his last remaining ruble to buy the first merchandise offered to him, and from that purchase he will see blessing and have the cash for the wedding. He wondered to himself, “What could I possibly buy with one ruble?” But he trusted the Rebbe, and set out to find his fortune. 

His first stop was a local hotel where diamond merchants conducted their business. He approached the table of merchants, and began studying the diamonds for sale arranged on the table. One of the merchants asked him, “What are you looking at? Are you interested in buying some diamonds?” “Yes!” he replied. “How much money do you have to spend?” “One ruble.” Came the reply. The diamond merchants burst out in laughter. “What do you expect to buy here for one ruble?” they said mockingly. Then one of the merchants piped up and said, “I’ll tell you what you can buy for one ruble. You can buy my place in the World to Come!” Remembering that the Rebbe told him to take the first sale offered to him, he immediately said, “I’ll take it, but on the condition that you write up a legal document to guarantee the sale.” The merchant quickly drew up a contract and wrote that he’s selling his place in the World to Come for one ruble. He signed the document and gave it to the fellow who gave him his last ruble. After receiving the document, he took a gemara out of his knapsack and started to learn in a corner somewhere. 

While the merchants were still ridiculing the fool who gave up his last ruble for something that didn’t exist, the wife of the seller entered the hotel. Her husband was the biggest merchant there, but his wealth was from his wife’s inheritance. When she inquired about all of the laughter, they recounted the details of the transaction that her husband had just made. Upon hearing that her husband sold his share in the World to Come, she was horrified. “Maybe you did have a portion in the world to come,” she said, “but now you are like a complete gentile! I won’t live with a complete gentile! Let’s go to the Rabbi right now and get a divorce!” The merchant began mumbling, “It was just a joke!” But she would not accept it and insisted that either he buy back his portion, or she will divorce him. 

They found the fellow learning in the corner and brought him to the merchant who said, “I hope you realize that our transaction was just a joke, here’s your ruble back and give me back the paper I gave you.” “No dice!” said the man. “A deal is a deal. I wasn’t joking.” “Okay,” said the merchant. “I’ll give you a profit on your ruble and give me the paper back.” “Not one ruble less than a thousand!” he answered. “What are you crazy? I sold it for one ruble and you now want a thousand for it? I’ll give you a hundred for it.” In the meantime, his wife was saying, “Even if he asks for five thousand you had better give it to him.” The purchaser said, “You should know that I am not the fool you think I am. I was also a wealthy merchant but I lost my money, and the Holy Apter Rav advised me to take the first deal that comes my way, and since I need a thousand rubles for my daughter’s wedding, I will not sell it back to you for one ruble less than a thousand.” After more attempts to bargain him down, the merchant saw that he had no choice, and he paid the fellow the thousand rubles and retrieved his document. 

When the merchant’s wife realized the impact of what had happened, she went to the fellow and said to him, “Where is the justice? How could you sell something you bought for one ruble for a thousand? I want to speak to your Rebbe and see if he agrees with this.” 

When she posed the question to the Rebbe, he responded. “When your husband sold his portion in the World to Come it was worth only one ruble to him. But after he became aware of how terrible it is to be without a place in the World to Come, and that such a thing is impossible for a Jew, his place in the World to Come went up in value. An item’s value is what it is worth to you.” The same applies to mitzvot. 

There is yet another Mishna in Pirkei Avot (4:2) that seems to echo the first Mishna (2:1), but it carries a different message. 

(ב) בֶּן עַזַּאי אוֹמֵר, הֱוֵי רָץ לְמִצְוָה קַלָּה (כְּבַחֲמוּרָה)… שֶׁמִּצְוָה גּוֹרֶרֶת מִצְוָה

2) Ben Azai says, “Pursue a light mitzvah like a heavy one … because one mitzvah causes another mitzvah.” 

A person may say, “Why should I bother with that small mitzvah? What is it going to do for me? It is so insignificant.”  To this claim Ben Azai says, “Exactly the opposite. Start with a small mitzvah, because the effect of doing even one small mitzvah will have such a powerful positive impact on you that it will inspire you to do another mitzvah.  This will start the ball rolling and be the beginning of a long life of mitzvah performance, as each mitzvah inspires others to come.

It is really much deeper than that. Rabbi Wolbe צז”ל  writes in his work עלי שור (Volume 2, p. 189), that the only way to grow is through a series of small mitzvot. Just as the world around us is built of microscopic atoms, which make up microscopic cells, which combine to form a grand world, so, too, the spiritual person is built of small mitzvot that combine to build a spiritually sound person. “A person who wishes to fix the world thinks that he has to come up with an earthshattering formula, or a massive organization of kindness or holiness. Similarly, one who wants to perfect himself thinks he must do herculean acts of kindness and holiness to accomplish something. But as to small deeds that don’t weigh heavily on a person, what effect could they possibly have on him? The exact opposite, however, is true. It is specifically from small acts that a person is built.” 

This is Ben Azai’s lesson. Don’t think that you have to start with heavy and difficult mitzvot to begin building your spiritual self. Au contraire! Start with small and easy ones. These will slowly build you up. Once you taste the sweetness of your growth, you will be inspired to continue on your journey to the next step and start taking on more difficult mitzvot. It is only through small steps that we can build. 

This idea is expressed very vividly in an excerpt from the Talmud (Sukkah 52a).

דרש רבי יהודה לעתיד לבא מביאו הקדוש ברוך הוא ליצר הרע ושוחטו בפני הצדיקים ובפני הרשעים צדיקים נדמה להם כהר גבוה ורשעים נדמה להם כחוט השערה הללו בוכין והללו בוכין צדיקים בוכין ואומרים היאך יכולנו לכבוש הר גבוה כזה ורשעים בוכין ואומרים היאך לא יכולנו לכבוש את חוט השערה הזה

Rabbi Yehuda taught. In the future, Hashem is going to slaughter the evil inclination before the righteous people and before the evil people. To the righteous people the evil force will look like a high mountain, and to the evil people it will look like a strand of hair. Upon seeing this, they will both burst out in tears. The righteous will be crying and saying, “How was I able to conquer such a high mountain?” and the evil people will be crying and saying, “How could I not have conquered this single strand of hair?” 

The answer to both is the same. The righteous were able to conquer the high mountain by taking one baby step at a time. But the evil people thought, “What will I gain by crossing that hair line?” Not realizing that all they needed to do was to take the smallest step in the right direction and they would have begun their journey, they never took that first baby step, so they ended up going nowhere. Growth comprises many little steps combined, not jumping to the top of a mountain.

This is why the “small” mitzvot that one tramples with his heel come back to haunt him on his day of judgment. Specifically, these small mitzvot could have brought him to a greater level had he only realized their value. 

There is no better time than the present to look for a small mitzvah that we can begin doing. It’s only a hair’s breadth. 

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