Parashat Ekev

Motivated by Love of God

Beyond reward and punishment.

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This portion continues the theme that has already been established and repeated. If you do as God tells you to do, then God will reward you. But that is only half of the story: if you don't do what God tells you to do, God will punish you severely. Most commentators translate ekev, the name of this portion, as "because," an indicator as to why one should follow the Divine instructions contained here and elsewhere in the Torah. This serves as a thematic opening of sorts for the entire portion--and a guidepost for our own journey.

The Title Revisited

But ekev can also mean "heel." The commentator, Jacob ben Asher suggests that the heel is an indicator of humility, since it always follows the toes and the rest of the foot. Thus, the Torah reading would begin "If you are humble and follow God's commands, then...". Others suggest that the heel also provides a foundation for the entire body on which to stand.

To me, the contents of the portion lean more to "a crushing heel" for a title, the result should the Israelites not follow the directions that are set out for them. As much as the rabbis try to mitigate the intensity of the portion with their various explanations of the title, it does not appear to be the loving portion we would prefer. Listen to what the Torah instructs the Israelites to do to its neighbors, for example:

"You shall destroy all the peoples that the Lord your God delivers to you, showing them no pity..." (Deuteronomy 7:16).

"You shall consign the images of their gods to the fire..." (Deuteronomy 7:25).

The Israelites seem to be given no choice. This is the way they must behave if they are to inherit their future and the land:

"Take care lest you forget the Lord your God and fail to keep the commandments, the rules, and the laws, which I enjoin upon you today" (Deuteronomy 8:11).

Another Interpretation

But I am not satisfied that this is the entire meaning of the portion, especially since the portion also teaches pride to the ancient Israelites--even if it is cast in what is initially the terms of reward and punishment. There seems to be another way to interpret the text and its direction.

With a foundation already established, chapter nine begins "Hear O Israel" (9:1), the same phrase that introduces the sacred mantra of the Jewish people, known in its liturgy as the "Shema" for the introductory word "hear" or "listen." The text tells us in chapter 11, "Love, therefore, the Lord your God, and always keep God's charge, God's laws, God's rules, and God's commandments” (Deuteronomy 11:1).

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Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky

Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky is executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute and the author of numerous books about Jewish spirituality.