The Little Things

July 25, 2010

8 min read


Ekev (Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25 )

As Moshe continues his soliloquy, after revisiting some of the major catastrophes that befell the people in the desert, he warns the people against idolatry and encourages them to keep the mitzvot. The Ten Commandments are repeated, and we may sense a certain stress that is born of having and maintaining a relationship with God: As Parshat Vetchanan comes to an end Moshe returns to the commandments:

And guard the mitzva and the statutes and the laws which I command you today to perform. (Devarim 7:11)

Ekev begins on a similar note:1

And due to your listening to these laws and guarding and performing them, Almighty God will keep the covenant and kindness which he promised to your ancestors. (Devarim 7:12)

The word ekev, translated here as "due to," is an unusual word. The word's literal translation is derived from 'heel', the back of the foot, and is therefore taken to mean 'that which follows', as the heel follows the foot. Thus, the verse describes the relationship with God that will result from our observance of the laws and statutes – a relationship of spiritual and physical bounty. In his commentary on this verse, Rashi employs the metaphor of the heel of the foot in a more literal fashion:

And due to your listening -if a [person listens] to the simple mitzvot which people (usually) trample with their heels. (Rashi, Devarim 7:12)

Instead of stressing the grandiose, or the "important" mitzvot, Rashi stresses the light or easy mitzvot, the ones that are performed in a nonchalant fashion. If those small, seemingly less-significant mitzvot are fulfilled, God will fulfill the covenant He made with our forefathers, and will treat us with kindness.

What are these "light" mitzvot? The verse continues, providing more details: "and due to your listening" is followed by "to these mishpatim (laws)." The Ramban points out that mishpatim are normally associated with torts, laws that regulate monetary transactions and interactions between people.2 All too often, these laws are neglected or abused in the course of "business as usual"; this verse informs us that careful attention to these same laws will bring upon us the blessings promised in the covenant with Avraham, Yitzhak and Yaakov.

R. Moshe b. R. Yaakov of Coucy (France, circa 1200), follows this same line of reasoning to explain the lengthy exile. The Jews' continued dishonest business practices force God to prolong the exile: If He were to redeem the Jews despite their corrupt behavior, God would be put in an awkward position, as it were. The non-Jews would rightly complain that this is unfair: Why are these dishonest people redeemed? The blatant and infamous dishonesty of the Jews leaves God no choice; the redemption waits.3

The problem with the tradition expressed by the Ramban and echoed by R. Moshe ben Yaakov is that the behavior they describe, the transgressions of which the Jews are guilty, do not seem to "minor"; dishonesty of this sort undermines the very foundations of community, unravels the fabric of society. Dishonesty in business dealings is dealt with aggressively and forcefully by the sages, even when the wrongdoing is not punishable by law. If, for example, someone withdraws from a transaction and the court cannot compel hime to stand by it, the Mishna describes the admonition that is read or recited to place his behavior in perspective. This text is known as the "Mi shePara," and it speaks of generations that were obliterated because of corruption:

If [one person] drew into his possession [another person's] produce without paying him the money, he cannot retract. If he paid him the money but did not draw into his possession his produce, he can withdraw. But they [the sages] said: He who exacted payment from the generation of the flood and the generation of the dispersion, He will take vengeance of him who does not stand by his word. (Mishna Bava Metzia 4:2)

The message is unmistakable: dishonesty, immoral business behavior – even when it is not criminal – destroys society. This is no minor transgression. Perhaps because of the importance ascribed to these types of laws, Rashi's comments steer us away from the mishpatim, and instead focus on more generic mitzvot.4 Rashi's comments may be more akin to the Mishna in Avot:

Rebbi said: which is the right way that a man should choose for himself? One which is [itself] an honor to the person adopting it, and [on account of which] honor [accrues] to him from men. And be as careful with a light mitzva as with a grave one, for one does not know the reward [for the fulfillment] of mitzvot. (Mishna Avot 2:1) 5

There is a subtle difference between this Mishna and Rashi's comments on our verse: whereas the Mishna speaks of scrupulous performance of mitzvot, even those whose importance we may believe to be minor, Rashi's comments refer to a verse that discusses "listening." The word ekev is connected to the word "listen." This phrase does not call upon us to guard or perform the commandments; simply "listening" will bring reward.6

What is the value of listening? What, in Rashi's view, is the importance of listening to the little things which people usually take for granted? The verse tells us that if we are attentive, God will fulfill His side of the covenant; apparently, what is at stake is the very nature of the relationship, a covenant of kindness. A relationship of this sort is not forged by virtue of mere obedience; a covenantal relationship, a relationship of intimacy and kindness is forged by love. And love is in the little things, in the details, in the attentiveness and that special type of listening that "hears" nuances, shades of meaning, unexpressed desires and needs. This type of relationship is not born of obedience, no matter how precise or punctual, but of that step beyond adherence to the law.

When the Rambam describes the highest level of service of God, one motivated by love, he uses daring terms to describe a passionate relationship:

What is the appropriate love that a person should love God? a great, brazen, extreme love, until one's soul is connected with love of God, and he speaks of it consistently as if he were lovesick... (Rambam Laws of Teshuva 10:3)

The person who serves God with love is consumed with this love, is always aware of this love and is constantly mindful of the object of their love. Even when they are separated by the necessary interruptions of everyday life, such a person sees the world through a unique prism: The object of their love is always in mind, and the world is seen through dual eyes – for such a person attempts to see and experience through the eyes of their beloved, to relate all experiences to their beloved. This is what is meant in our verse: to be "listening" to God is far more than fulfilling commandments or avoiding transgressions; rather, to be always thinking, always seeing the world through God's eyes, as it were, always considering God's desires, always "tuned in" to God's voice. The result of such listening is a relationship of profound intimacy – a covenantal relationship, a relationship of kindness.

This same "listening" lies at the heart of is considered by many to be the most succinct expression of Jewish faith, the phrase which may be the greatest common denominator7 of the Jewish religion: The Torah commands us to know that there is one God, but goes further, and bids us to listen:

Listen, O Israel: The Eternal is our God, the Eternal is one. (Devarim 6:4)

This listening is immediately followed by love:

Love the Eternal your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your wherewithal. (Devarim 6:5)

The Seforno's comments on our verse underscore this important connection:

"And due to your listening:" Here the King commanded all of this, so we shall merit the covenant and the hesed, that which it says, "And guard ... today to perform". (Devarim 7:11) – out of love, not on condition to be rewarded; and for that you will merit the covenant and the hesed. (Seforno, Devarim 7:12)

Real relationships are not based on utility, or hope of reward. A real relationship is based on love, and it is the result of listening, of paying careful attention to the little things. What we learn from this first verse in Parshat Ekev is that this love reciprocated by God "in a big way." When we are attentive to the "little things" that fall in the area beyond the letter of the law, we build a loving relationship, and God, in turn, takes care of the "big things."

  1. See the Baal haTurim, Devarim 7:12, who notes the connection between the end of V'etchanan and the beginning of Ekev.
  2. Ramban, Devarim 7:12.
  3. Sefer Mitzvot Gedolot, Positive Commandment 74.
  4. See Mizrachi, Devarim 7:12.
  5. The Rambam in his commentary to the Mishna Chapter 2, Mishna 1, writes that the "light" mitzvot include being happy on holidays and learning the Hebrew language.
  6. See Siftei Kohen, Devarim 7:12.
  7. See Tzror Hamor, Devarim chapter 2, and see Rav Zadok haKohen, Machshavot Charutz section 17.
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