Maintaining Closeness With God
Ekev (Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25 )
This parashah commences with the verse "This shall be the reward when you hearken to these ordinances ... Hashem, your God, will safeguard for you the covenant and the kindness that He swore to your forefathers." On this verse, Rashi quotes a Midrash explaining that the Hebrew word "eikev," which is translated "if" or "in lieu of," literally means "the heel of one's foot." Therefore, the question that we must ask is, "What is the deeper message herein?"
Rashi explains that mitzvos which we do not deem important we tend to tread upon with the heels of our feet. But it is in precisely this area that we must be ever so cautious, for the Mishnah teaches that we do not know the value of a mitzvah. All our commandments were proclaimed at Sinai by God and therefore are all equally important. The Torah is not a supermarket in which we can pick and choose. And yet, we label certain mitzvos as unimportant and discard them. How do we justify such a betrayal of God's commandments?
Those mitzvos that we find burdensome or too demanding we tend to categorize as unessential, and after a while, we truly come to believe that they are of no consequence and regard those who do observe them as religious fanatics. Obviously, none of us always truly fulfills the letter of the law, but when we fail to do so, we should at least have the integrity to recognize our weakness, ask for God's forgiveness, and hope to one day attain the spiritual strength to fulfill the mitzvos as God commanded.
There is yet another reason why many take for granted or neglect certain mitzvos. It's easy to rise to the challenge when a mitzvah is observed only on special occasions, but maintaining a high level of commitment day in and day out is not so simple. That, however, is the "litmus test" of our Jewish commitment.
This passage in the Torah challenges each and every one of us to scrutinize our level of observance and ask ourselves, Are we trampling on some mitzvos? Are there mitzvos that we consider "burdensome" and reject out of hand? If our commitment to Torah is real, then we have to work on ourselves to refine and improve our observance.
GOD DOES NOT PUNISH
At one time or another, we are all challenged by difficulties and sorrow. At such times, we may ask, "Where is God? Why is He punishing us?"
Our parashah teaches that God never punishes, in the sense of meaning to inflict pain without a constructive purpose. As the verse states, "And you should know in your heart that just as a father will chastise his son, so Hashem, your God, chastises you." So even in the midst of our pain, we have to know that God, our Father, is with us and has not abandoned us. And this knowledge cannot be merely cerebral, but must be "felt in our hearts," for only thus will we be able to stay the course. A father has only love for his children, and his intention is never to punish, but to correct. Even as a father longs for his children to come home to him, so our Heavenly Father awaits us. God sends us wake-up calls, but sadly, in our pain and anger, we don't hear His call.
The Almighty God, Who is our loving Father, does not take pleasure in our suffering. He would never wish to hurt us. He places difficulties in our paths so that we may come to realize that we are self-destructive and have lost sight of the higher purpose of our lives. In counseling people who are challenged and hurting, our mother, Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis, tichyeh, very often advises people not to ask "why," for "why" only leads to more anger and bitterness. But, she counsels, do ask "madua" or "lamah" - the Hebrew equivalents of "why," for in the holy tongue the word madua can be understood as a contraction of "mah dei'ah - what do I learn from this?" and lamah can mean "le mah" - "to what end? How can I grow and mature from this?" If we keep this in mind, it will be so much easier for us to cope, come closer to our Heavenly Father, and realize our goal in life. King David reinforces this teaching in Psalm 23, "Your rod and Your staff shall comfort me," meaning that even when God's rod causes me pain, it comforts me, because I know His purpose is to help me improve me.
FORMULA FOR MAINTAINING CLOSENESS WITH GOD
Moshe Rabbeinu continues his farewell address and bequeaths to the Jewish people a formula for survival: "Now, O Israel, what does Hashem, your God, ask of you? Only to fear Hashem, your God, go in all His ways and to love Him, and to serve Hashem, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul...."
The Talmud in Tractate Berachos asks, "Is fearing God such a small thing then, that Moses uses the diminutive 'only'?" And our Sages answer, "Yes, for Moses who was so close to God, it was indeed that simple." Still, that response is puzzling, for, after all, how does that help us? We are not on Moses' level. Moreover, reverence for God is the responsibility of every Jew, so obviously, we have all been mandated to fulfill that imperative - but how, you might ask. The Talmud teaches that if we surround ourselves with God-fearing people, then our awareness and reverence for Hashem will be easily attained. Our prayers, our Torah learning, our observance, will all soar in the company of the righteous. Many times, people ask, what can I do to improve myself as a Jew? How can I elevate my observance of mitzvos, my prayers, and my Torah studies? The answer is simple: Surround yourself with people who are proficient in those areas, people who truly believe. Cling to them and their faith will become infectious.
PRESCRIPTIONS FOR FAITH
Moses, our teacher, gives us many more prescriptions as to how we may best maintain our close relationship with Hashem. We will cite just a few: The portion opens with "V'hayah eikev..." - "And it shall be when - because - you hearken...." As we explained above, however, literally translated, the word "eikev" does not mean "if" or "because," but "heel," to teach us that life is made up of steps, and if we realize that every little step leads to a bigger one that can define our lives, we will automatically be more careful about the steps we take. Those who do not give forethought to their steps can easily find themselves at a destination at which they never wanted to be. If we take this teaching to heart, we can avoid the pitfalls that lead to unfortunate consequences, so let us remember that every step that we take on the road of life leads us to a destination ... but what that destination may be is for us to decide.
Eikev - footsteps - also remind us that reverence for God comes easily to us because we all had bubbies and zeides who made a path for us. We need only follow in their footsteps. As a matter of fact, the entire Book of Genesis can be described as "footsteps" that our Patriarchs and Matriarchs blazed for us on the highway of life. They experienced every trial, every tribulation ... they passed every test so that we, their descendants, might follow in their well-trodden path and walk in honor, unafraid, on the highway of life.
Finally, when we are overcome by sadness, when we feel "eikev," our feet dragging us down, then we must remember that the word eikev is preceded by "v'hayah," which is a code word for happiness. As Jews, we must strive to be in a constant state of simchas hachaim, which means that we must work on developing a positive, joyous attitude toward life. We can't afford to give in to our dark moods. We can't indulge our feelings of depression. We simply have too much to accomplish during our short sojourn on this planet. But how, you might ask, can we achieve happiness? How can we control our moods? Once again the Torah gives us the answer and it is to be found in the remainder of the passage: If we "hearken to these ordinances," if we study and observe the Torah, our spirits will carry us, and God will help us to lift our feet with positive energy, enabling us to tackle even the most difficult tasks.
WHAT DOES GOD REQUIRE OF US?
Now, O Israel, what does Hashem, your God, ask of you? Only to fear Hashem, your God ...." From this passage, our rabbis conclude that everything is in the hands of Hashem, except our fear of Him. In the end, it is this fear - reverence - that will define our lives. Contrary to conventional wisdom, it is not the situation in which we find ourselves, nor the profession or business in which we work, that is crucial, but what we make of them; and all that depends on the measure of our reverence for God. For example, a person may find himself confined to a hospital bed, but whether he reacts with anger or expresses faith will depend on his reverence for God. Whether he is rich or poor is not the determinant, but what he does with his wealth or how he accepts his poverty will define his life, and all that will depend on his reverence for God. We experienced the reality of this teaching during the illnesses of our beloved grandparents, Rabbi Avraham and Rebbetzin Miriam Jungreis, zt"l, and of our father, Rabbi Meshulem HaLevi Jungreis, zt"l. They never allowed their pain to confine their spirits. Their faith was so powerful that whoever visited them went forth elevated and wiser, and it was all due to their deep reverence for God. But how do we develop this reverence?
A good first step is to pray. If we ask that God inspire us with reverence for Him so that we may properly fulfill His commandments, we may be confident that He will fulfill our wishes. Thus, we are never to feel discouraged in our observance of mitzvos, in our Torah studies, or in our daily prayers. We need only ask for God's help and it will certainly be forthcoming.
1. Devarim 7:12.
2. Ibid. 8:5.
3. Ibid. 10:12.
4. Ibid. 7:12.
5. Ibid. 10:12.