|Our Heels or Our Hearts|
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Parashat Ekev, Deut. 7:12-11:25
by Rabbi Dr. John Fischer
As frequently translated, Deuteronomy 7:12-13 reads: “If you pay attention to these laws and are careful to follow them, then the Lord your God will keep his covenant of love with you as he swore to your ancestors. He will love you and bless you.”
This text opens “Ekev,” this week’s parasha. Although often translated “if”—as it is here—the word ekev is far richer than its usual translations. In fact, it is not even the normal word for “if”; that term is im. Actually, ekev is much better translated “because” (as per Rambam) or “when.” The idea then appears to be an encouragement, namely, that the people (we) will in fact follow God’s instructions and reap the benefits God has committed himself to lavishing on us. Moreover, according to several rabbinic commentators (Saadyah Gaon, Ibn Ezra, and Onkelos) there is a suggestion or connotation of reward inherent in the wording here. So the thought in our text more fully is: “Here’s the reward when(ever) you pay attention to these guidelines.” Later, in chapter 28, this idea is reinforced when Moses lists the many blessings God will rain down on his people whenever they follow him.
And, in our parasha, the rewards are great as well! “He will love you and bless you.” Interestingly, these verses sound almost identical to Yeshua’s statements in John 14:21: “Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him,” the ultimate in “blessing.” In fact, there’s a strong likelihood that Yeshua is referring to “Ekev” at this point.
There is a further dimension to the term ekev; it also means “heel.” On the significance of this meaning, the Artscroll Chumash perceptively notes:
Midrashically, the word ‘ekev’ . . . alludes to the sort of commandments that people may regard as relatively unimportant, so they tend figuratively to ‘tread on them with their heels.’ Thus, the Torah assures Israel that if they are careful to observe even these neglected commandments, they can be certain that God will reward them…
This, too, sounds just like Yeshua, as he reminded us:
“Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices theses commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 5:19)
God wants us to be very careful to follow him fully.
Ekev (ayin-qof-vav) is also part of Jacob’s name. His name more accurately means “May he (God) be at your heels,” as in your “defending rear guard.” His name and its meaning are alluded to in a strategic text found in Isaiah 52:12: “…for the Lord God will go before you, the God of Israel will be your rear guard (i.e. your ‘Jacob’).” This verse immediately precedes the introduction to the classic text of Isaiah 53, which unveils the ultimate way in which God went before Jacob (and his descendents) and protected us! It is the core of the blessings God showered on Jacob the man and Jacob the people. And, if the Jacob story is properly understood, Jacob (the ish tam or “complete person” of Gen. 25:27) serves as the pattern of the kind of God-expected lifestyle described in our parasha; he is faithful to God (Heb. 11:21).
But there’s more in our text. “God will safeguard (rather than ‘keep’) his covenant of love with you.” The Hebrew word translated “keep” is shamar, used to describe the watchmen or guards on the ancient city walls, or, later in history, the sentries protecting Israel’s early kibbutzim. They were responsible to be alert and to keep the city’s inhabitants safe. That is precisely how God will watch over the covenant he made with our ancestors (and with us), alertly and faithfully, and lovingly. In fact, the covenant itself is characterized by and described as a “covenant of love,” a covenant of deep, abiding love as the Hebrew chesed (profound, faithful love) indicates. And, our responsibility is similar, since the same Hebrew term (shamar) is used for our relationship and response to the covenant (“careful to follow”). We must alertly and lovingly treasure God’s guidelines. As one response at the presentation of the Torah puts it: “The ark now unveils its treasure…The Torah stands there in all its richness…” (SIDDUR FOR MESSIANIC JEWS)
Notably, the covenant found in our passage is the very one God made with our ancestors at Mt. Sinai, and it is called a covenant of love (not law!). Chesed is a very strong word used to describe God’s unlimited graciousness, overflowing compassion, and unconditional commitment to us. And, it is at the very heart of Exodus 34:6-7, which beautifully unwraps its broader meaning. If we truly realize that God’s covenant with us at Sinai is a covenant of love, we should be even more anxious and eager to carefully safeguard and gratefully follow it.
One further thought: in the Sefer Torah itself this passage is directly adjacent to the text of the Shema. It even begins with tishm’un (“pay attention”), which contains the same letters as shema. The implication seems clear. If I’m really sincere about the Lord being my God, the only one whom I will serve—if I’m serious about loving him with whole heart, strength and life—I will, then, more carefully and gratefully follow all his instructions in the Torah.
So, we do need to be far more careful to treasure and follow God’s guidelines in the Torah because we love him. And, the reward will be great!
This commentary first appeared last year in this very location!