Posted by: Steve Coplan | August 12, 2006

Parsha of the week – down at heel

This week’s parsha starts with a relatively obscure Hebrew word. Translated as because or if, ekev pronounced differently meens heel. Since the word is uncommon and shares its spelling with a part of the body, it has attracted a fair amount of commentary. Much of this week’s commentary has been lifted from in the interests of time.

And it shall come to pass, because (‘ekev’) you hearken to these laws, and keep, and do them; that G-d your G-d shall keep unto you the covenant and the kindness which He swore to your fathers.

Rashi interprets this as an allusion to those mitzvot which a person tramples with his heels — the Torah is telling us to be equally diligent with all of Hashem’s commandments, no less with those that seem less significant to our finite minds. Later commentators have expanded on this point to describe those commandments that are more intangible as those that can be downgraded in insignifigance like enjoying ourselves on hagim (although few Hasids need much exhortation to imbibe to excess on Purim) and speaking in Hebrew.

Ibn Ezra and Nachmanides interpret it in the sense of “in the end” (i.e., “in the heels of” or in the sense that the heel is at the extremity of the body) — the reward being something that follows the action. A similar interpretation is given by Ohr HaChaim, who explains that true satisfaction and fulfillment comes at the “end” — the complete fulfillment of all the mitzvot, and by Rabbeinu Bechayei, who sees it as an allusion that the reward we do receive in this world is but a lowly and marginal (the “heel”) aspect of the true worth of the mitzvot.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe says: Our commitment to Torah should be such that it permeates us entirely, so that also our heel — the lowest and the least sensitive part of the person — “hearkens to these laws, observes them and does them.” In other words, our relationship with Hashem should not be confined to the holy days of the year, or to certain “holy” hours we devote to prayer and study, but should also embrace our everyday activities. Indeed, this “lowly” and “spiritually insensitive” part of our life is the foundation of our relationship with Hashem in the same way that the heel is the base upon which the entire body stands and moves.

Still others point to the similarity with Ya’akov or Jacob, who received his name because he clung to his brother Esau’s heel as he exited the womb. Jacob later wrestled with the angel, and as U2 points out, the angel was overcome. Jacob had to come to terms with his own sense of inadequacy before he could become Israel, the spiritual father of the Jewish people.

The Chabad web site also cites this excerpt from the Bava Bathra in the Babylonian Talmud:

“Rabbi Banaah was measuring tombs … [and] came to the tomb of Adam . Said Rabbi Banaah: I looked at his two heels, and they shone like suns.”

Rav Banaya was visiting the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron where by tradition Adam and Eve are buried. The passage is significant not only because it mentions a heel in another context, enabling scholars to apply another layer of analysis, but also because it is preceeded by the following passage:

“When he came to the cave of Adam, a voice came forth from heaven (a ‘bat kol’) saying Thou hast beholden the likeness of my likeness, my likeness itself thou mayest not behold. But, he said, I want to mark out the cave. The measurement of the inner one is the same as that of the outer one [came the answer]. ”

In other words, Adam’s dimensions have a celestial signifigance. There is an entire body of learning in the Kabbalah revolving around ‘komah’ or measurement of divine attributes, not as a means of anthropomorphisizing Hashem but as a way of creating a system of dependencies to link disparate pieces of information. Interestingly enough, the Christian tradition holds that the lubricum delinquendi, the point where Adam was biten by the snake was his heel. So what is the connection between Adam’s heels shining like the sun and the use of the word ekev in the parsha? Interestingly enough, the Kabbalistic literature revolves around correcting Adam’s sin in order to retrieve his original state, but because both his heels were like the sun, to strive for a second, more intense light (a metaphor for a spiritual state). And why a heel? Because even the most insignificant deeds can bring about a restoration in our spiritual state — something along the lines of random acts of kindness.


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