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Spiritual Economics

Ekev (Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25 )

by Rabbi Noson Weisz

Expectation-driven systems are double-edged.

"This shall be the reward when you hearken to these ordinances, and you observe and perform them; Hashem, your God, will safeguard for you the covenant and the kindness that He swore to your forefathers." (Devarim 7:12)

"This shall be the reward" is the ArtScroll translation of the Hebrew word ekev, a word that literally means heel, as of the foot. In the context of the verse, the Torah selected this particular word to convey the idea of causation.

Causation and Heels

Nachmanides searches for the rational connection between causation and heel, and offers two interpretations. The first has the connotation of consequence. The head and the heel are the opposite extremities of the human body. The beginning and the end of any rational process where A leads to B can be expressed in terms of the human body. The consequence of listening to God's ordinances, 'the head,' is that He safeguards the covenant He made with our forefathers, 'the heel.' Because the cause and effect referred to in the verse are linked together by human moral decisions, the extremities of the human body were selected as the most appropriate imagery to convey the concept of moral causation.

According to his second interpretation, the word ekev no more means heel than it does causation. It has a deeper meaning that allows it to be applied to represent these seemingly disparate ideas. Ekev applies to the heel because this portion of the foot is a circular joint that connects the straight portion of the leg with the flat portion of the foot. The surrounding of disparate objects or locations and enclosing them within a single circular area is described as ekev. Thus the circular enclosure of the two parts of the foot within a single organ is ekev.

The following of God's ordinances and the safeguarding of the covenant are also phenomena that are enclosed within a single circular enclosure, and therefore can also be described as ekev. Observance of the mitzvot and the blessings of the Covenant can be described as separate locations on the rim of a common wheel. This second interpretation is derived from the translation of Onkelos, and Nachmanides favors it over his own.


The difference between these two approaches to the manner in which ekev implies causation can be perceived by looking at the notion of consequence. According to the first interpretation, the vector that leads from Torah observance to the blessings of the Covenant is uni-directional; observance is always at the head and the blessing of the Covenant is always at the heel. Just as it is quite impossible to confuse the head with the heel, the blessings of the Covenant never lead to Torah observance; it is always the observance that leads to blessing.

But if we follow the circle concept offered by Onkelos, observance and Covenant are different spokes along the rim of a single wheel, which can be rotated in any direction. In this sense, the blessings of the Covenant constitute 'causes' of observance no less than observance constitutes the 'cause' of the arrival of the Covenantal blessings. Each is a consequence of the other.

According to both interpretations, the Torah selected the word 'ekev' deliberately in order to teach us the laws of spiritual cause and effect; the unusual word for causation was chosen to define the causal relationship.


We have explored the consequences of the first interpretation in previous essays. Stated very briefly, the substance of the first ekev comes to correct the mistaken approach most of us take to Divine reward and punishment. We tend to equate God's rewards to a salary paid for a job well done. There is no direct cause-effect correspondence between work and salary. Work done is never compensated by merely transferring the money that the work generates to the worker. Every assembly line worker at GM is paid a portion of the income generated from the sale of finished automobiles. But it is clear that the level of compensation offered for his particular job has little if any correlation to the contribution of his work to the finished product.

The best paid corporate workers are the ones involved in sales. Their work produces no cars; it generates money. In terms of the actual product, the automobile, the input of the assembly line worker is far more valuable than that of the person in the advertising or legal department. The actual yardstick that is employed to decide how the pie should be split has more to do with the supply and demand for different sorts of labor inputs than with any rational scheme measuring the importance of input to product.

The availability of unskilled workers who can work on the assembly line is infinitely greater than the availability of talented advertisers, and the law of supply and demand for different sorts of labor is what determines who gets paid how much.

According to our mistaken impression of divine reward and punishment, it is just as clear that the blessings offered as compensation for the performance of mitzvot bears no relation to the value of the input – they are a return for labor. The reason that we cannot fully comprehend them is because we have no grasp of the laws of supply and demand that apply to the situation.

The first interpretation of ekev comes to correct this mistaken impression. Rewards offered for the performance of mitzvot are related to the laws of cause and effect and aren't governed by supply and demand considerations at all. Thus blessings are a natural consequence of observance. The universe was constructed so that observance alters reality in cause and effect terms to produce blessings. Observance is at the head of this reality; safeguarding the Covenant is at its foot.

Expectations and Their Consequences

To comprehend the second meaning of 'ekev' and how it relates to the first, we must take note of the influence of expectations on consequences in certain human affairs. The area of human endeavor in which this influence is most manifest is economic activity. The state of the economy is largely expectation driven. When people are confident that everything is as should be, they do not hesitate to invest in the future. They buy houses and cars and new electronics etc. and confidently finance their purchases out of future earnings. The economy expands to meet the increase in demand, GNP rises, corporate profits spiral upward, the stock market climbs, and everyone is better off.

But if we introduce a confidence-shattering event such as the horror of September11, the bubble of confidence in the future deflates and there is a marginal increase in social anxiety. People are overcome by terror and lose their vision of a rosy future. As they no longer face the future with total confidence, they are reluctant to mortgage their future earnings to finance present expenditures. They put off or abandon the idea of new purchases. The economy starts to deflate. Corporate earnings shrink, the GNP stops expanding or even contracts, the stock market declines. Soon everyone is worse off.

Economic enterprises that were marginally profitable in an expanding economy begin piling up losses and resort to accounting tricks to shore up their corporate bottom line to protect themselves against the public loss of confidence. Several giant corporate enterprises go under and a spirit of panic and mistrust spreads through the land. People become cynical and begin to question the honesty and reliability of the entire economic system causing further contraction and further collapses in a rapidly descending downward spiral.

Objectively, little has changed from the times of expansion and economic well being to the times of downturn. The difference is mainly psychological. People's changing expectations and perceptions constitute the real difference. In the world of physics and chemistry, there is no need to factor in human expectations to determine the relationship between cause and effect. This part of reality is not humanity driven.

Spiritual Economics

But in any sort of human driven process, the perception of reality is itself a major factor in working out the relationship between cause and effect. If this is true in the realm of the secular world, as we have just demonstrated through considering the laws of economics, how much more must this applicable to the world of spirituality, a world whose reality is entirely grounded on relationships.

It is in this sense that human observance of Torah laws and Divine observance of the Covenant are interrelated. As long as the Jewish people maintains its confidence that Torah observance leads directly to increased Divine focus on the supply of the blessings of the Covenant, the spiritual economy is on an upswing. Israel will enthusiastically observe the Torah laws and God will joyously implement the blessings expressed in the covenant in an ever-increasing upward spiral. But as soon as the Jewish people forfeits the perception that its welfare is a direct result of the blessings of the Covenant, this spiritual cause and effect relationship breaks down.

Observance of the mitzvot may not immediately drop, but greater energy and enthusiasm will inevitably be invested in other inputs. After all we mainly expend energy in the quest for greater welfare. As the human investment in the covenantal relationship declines, the Divine input into Covenantal blessings correspondingly contracts. As the supply of such blessings begins to contract, the natural laws of cause and effect start to kick in.

As the Divine energy invested in Covenantal observance contracts, the human investment into alternate sources of well being rises, causing a further contraction of Divine investment. Over the course of time basic expectations begin to change; there is an erosion of security and confidence in the future. The spiritual economy shrinks and contracts, physical systems begin to expand into the resultant Covenantal vacuum.

Double-Edged Systems

Expectation driven systems are double edged. Each side of the equation induces a corresponding response in the other. In our economic model for example, troubled economies can rescue themselves through exports. Other societies that are in the confident stage can decide to buy the products of troubled economies, generally available at depressed prices.

This in turn induces an upswing in the profitability of troubled corporations, having the effect of restoring local confidence and kick-starting a new wave of consumption which ultimately has the effect of restoring the economy to its former health.

In the same way, an upswing in the investment of Divine energy that causes an increase in the supply of the blessings of the covenant has the effect of restoring Israel's confidence in the correspondence between Covenantal blessings and its own Torah observance, restoring the lost enthusiasm for the practice of mitzvot.

Beginning From God's Edge

A prime example of the existence of this spiritual mechanism is the very existence of this website. Following the Holocaust, less than four per cent of the surviving Jewish people were fully observant, and Torah literate Jews worldwide numbered no more than several hundred. A continued spiral of misfortune would surely have wiped out this tiny remnant in a relatively short span of time.

But God poured divine energy into the Covenantal blessings. The Holocaust survivors prospered miraculously. Almost any Jew who turned his hand to any sort of enterprise prospered enormously. The State of Israel won a series of incredible victories and experienced an unbelievable run of great economic growth. By the rule of 'ekev', as the Divine observance of the Covenant perceivably expanded, the level of Torah observance shot up. Torah observance made a powerful comeback; yeshivas grew exponentially, the Ba'al Teshuva movement brought many thousands of Jews back to Torah observance.

As everyone knows, confidence and trust are flip sides of the same coin. Everyone with the barest amount of formal education is capable of fully understanding the economic phenomena discussed in this essay. Therefore it follows that everyone knows how to cure ailing economies. All you have to do is demonstrate your confidence in the future by agreeing to invest in the things that you would like to have now. You get the double benefit of getting what you want and also ensuring the recovery of the economy so that you are able to pay for it. And yet, we all know how difficult it is to turn around an ailing economy and to kill the 'bear' market and restore bullish times. Why don't we all take the steps to fix what is wrong?

The Role Of Trust

The answer in a word: trust. If I could trust that everyone else would do as I do, overcome his or her emotional loss of confidence and willfully invest in the future, I would certainly do so myself without hesitation. The problem is that I don't trust other people to follow my example. If I am the only one investing, my puny effort will have zero effect, and instead of being buoyed by a rising economy, I will drown in the gathering flood of bad economic bad news.

Things are no different spiritually. Unless I place my trust in God, it always seems to me that reality is non-Covenantal in nature, and my efforts at observance will fail to reshape the world into a world of blessing and therefore my survival in the world as I know it demands that I pour my primary effort into the natural inputs of life, leaving little energy to invest in my relationship with God.

In the absence of my own trust in God, God is not inspired to offer me His confidence and trust. The mutual lack of trust has the pernicious effect of validating my lack of confidence in the future as a realistic interpretation of reality. Expectations verify themselves as realities.

Steps To Trust

Our Parsha offers a step-by-step approach of how to successfully function within this confidence-trust driven spiritual reality. Step one: know who and what you are.

"Hear O Israel, today you cross the Jordan, to come and drive out nations that are greater and mightier than you, cities that are great and fortified up to the heavens... Do not say in your heart, when Hashem pushes them away from before you, saying, 'Because of my righteousness did Hashem bring me to possess this Land...'" (Deut. 9:1-5)

Reject the salary approach to spiritual reality. Do not regard the capture of Israel as a well-deserved compensation for services rendered. Understand the laws of spiritual causation properly; they are relationship driven and not salary oriented.

"Now O Israel, what does Hashem, your God ask of you? Only to fear Hashem, your God, to go in all His ways and to love Him... Only your forefathers did Hashsem cherish to love them, and He chose their offspring after them – you – from all the peoples as this day." (Deut. 10:12-15)

Observance is a measure of emotional attachment, a continuation of the relationship of mutual trust established between God and our forefathers. Never make the mistake of thinking that observance alone must always be compensated or adequately safeguards the Covenantal relationship.

The only truly confidence-trust driven reality in the universe is the Covenantal relationship that exists between God and Israel. What we interpret as physical reality is merely the measuring rod of the state of confidence and trust that exists between God and Israel.

The Uniqueness Of Devarim

The Book of Devarim is a unique portion of the Torah. It is the teachings of Moses and yet it is also the words of God. After Moses spoke the words of his own teachings, God dictated these same words back to him as His words, and instructed Moses to inscribe them as a portion of the Torah. But even as Moses uttered them, they were already Torah inspired; Nachmanides cites a tradition that the Torah was fully written well before the creation of the world in letters of black fire on a parchment of white fire. [Rashi refers to the same tradition in Devarim 33:2].

Tradition thus teaches that we are looking at a three-stage process; the words of fire become the words of Moses and are then incorporated into the Torah given to us on earth.

The Torah of God is an abstract reality difficult for human beings to grasp and to deal with. Just as we need a human agency to bring the Torah down to earth, we also need to be taught how to incorporate its teachings into our functioning reality. The heart and mind of Moses is the bridge between Israel and God. Moses grasped the Torah with the force of his great mind and was able to translate the abstract information in his heart in terms that we can relate to. Relating to the Torah properly is also Torah.

The Torah as written in Holy fire is the Written Law; the Torah as translated into actions that we perform in our world is the Oral law; the Book of Devarim, the book that teaches us how to approach the relationship with God that the Torah was intended to establish is the transition between the two.

Ground Rules To Moshiach

In our Parsha, Moses lays down the ground rules on which we must construct a relationship with God based on mutual trust and confidence. The first step is to realize that we are dealing with a different sort of reality; the 'head', the proper approach and understanding, must direct the 'heel', the level of blessing in the world. Torah reality is the very reverse of physical reality. Physical reality is inflexible and is already in place before we understand it. Understanding it doesn't have the effect of altering it; it merely allows us to fit ourselves successfully within its confines. The heels are there first; the head must follow. In Torah reality the understanding comes first.

The reason for this is the fact that the level of Covenantal blessing and observance are different spokes along the same wheel. The level of human Torah observance actualizes the availability of Covenantal blessings that allows for its expression; the greater the level of observance, the greater the level of blessings. But the relationship with God will never disappear in this two pronged reality; when the situation gets truly desperate, God will raise the level of Covenantal blessing and the altered reality will automatically restore the level of observance to match it. This is the way that God will bring the Messiah.

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