Parshat Ekev begins with what seems like a familiar dictum:
And it will be because you heed these judgments, and safeguard and do them, that the Eternal, your Almighty God shall safeguard and uphold with you the covenant and the mercy which he swore to your fathers. (Deuteronomy 7:12)
Man is commanded to follow the commandments and to obey the Word of God. This is far from unusual; such statements are to be found many times in the Torah, and in the book of Deuteronomy in particular. In fact, in the verse immediately preceding this one, the concluding verse of Parshat V'etchanan, man is enjoined to follow the Torah:
You shall therefore safeguard the commandment(s) and the statutes and the judgments which I command you this day, to do them. (Deuteronomy 7:11)
While the division of the Torah into weekly portions is somewhat artificial, in the written text of the Torah, Parshat Ekev always begins a new paragraph, as indicated in our printed texts by the Hebrew letter "peh," shorthand for petucha(scribal instructions to leave the line petucha, open). In other words, the two verses in question seem to say the same thing, despite the formal indication that a new idea has begun. The last verse of V'etchanan and the first verse of Ekev both are exhortations to follow the commandments of the Torah. Why, then, are they separated? Or, we might ask, what does the first verse in our present parsha add to what had already been stated in the preceding verse?
The language of our verse does not solve our quandary: the word "Ekev," is variously translated as "come to pass," "because of" or "as a result of"; the placement of this word here is awkward and the meaning difficult to pinpoint. Explanations of this word often rely on the relatively straightforward meaning of its three-lettered root, ayin - kuf - bet, "heel," as in the source of our patriarch Yaakov's name. With this in mind, Rashi explains:
"And it will be because you heed": if you heed the 'light' commandments that a person tramples with their heel. (Rashi D'vraim 7:12)
What is unique about our verse is that it describes the outcome of our behavior; as a result of our heeding the Torah's pronouncements and fulfilling the commandments, God will fulfill His part in the covenant: "that the Almighty your God shall keep with you the covenant and the mercy which he swore to your fathers." And yet, the same message could have been transmitted in far less convoluted language. Had the Torah wished to state this wonderful result in more straightforward terms, describing the ongoing relationship with God and the dynamic nature of His covenant with the Jewish People, simpler words could have been employed. Would the meaning have suffered had the common 'im'("if") been used - as it is later in the same parsha? "If" is the most straightforward word that connotes conditionality: "If you obey the commandments, I will uphold the covenant," or even, "When you behave as I have commanded, the desired result will surely follow."
Rashi is sensitive to the unusual usage of ekev, and points to an additional message that is conveyed by this particular word. He speaks of the "light" commandments, simple or easy commandments that are "trampled with the heel." Various later commentaries ponder this idea: What are these "small" mitzvot? Why would these mitzvot suffer discrimination at the hands of those who obey God's command?
The Maharal explains that these mitzvot are neglected because they are perceived as bearing minimal reward.1 This explanation echoes a teaching found in the Ethics of the Fathers (Pirkei Avot):
...and be careful with a light2 precept as with a grave one, for you do not know the (calculation) of reward [for the fulfillment] of the mitzvot. (Mishna Avot 2:1)
Another possible understanding of these "trampled" mitzvot is that these mitzvot are, in fact, performed, but without proper intention or devotion; these are mitzvot which a person may fulfill out of habit, by rote, and without full concentration or consideration.
A third possible understanding of these "trampled" mitzvot centers around the intent of the person who fulfills the mitzva: The mitzva is performed, intentionally, but for the wrong reason. The scenario created by this understanding is one in which a prescribed act is performed, or a proscribed act avoided, but not because it is so decreed by God. The mitzva is not, in fact, "credited" to the account of the person who performed it if his or her intention was devoid of any desire to heed the Word of God.
Particular deeds are often performed for reasons of altruism, or out of some sort of self-serving motivation. In this case, the performance of the mitzva has not been trampled upon; it was fully and precisely performed. Rather, the sense of command is lacking. How is such an action to be judged? What is the nature and status of such behavior?
The Netziv, (Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin), in his commentary to the Torah, writes that a mitzva is only a mitzva if the person performing the act believes he was commanded to do so. In the literal sense, the word mitzva means "command." It therefore stands to reason that a person who behaves in accordance with a Torah law but does not believe himself to be fulfilling a precise and specific command, is not, in fact, performing a "mitzva." 3
The question of the intention in fulfilling mitzvot is treated extensively in various Talmudic discussions. Although various opinions are offered and different conclusions are drawn for different categories of mitzvot, the Netziv clarifies a very basic underpinning of the Talmudic debate that the Sages, as well as later readers such as ourselves, might have taken for granted: 4 According to the Netziv, the entire argument is predicated upon the premise that the person performing the act believes in God and Torah.
We may better understand this in terms of our more familiar relationships: Do behaviors in interpersonal relationships require intentional effort, or is the "bottom line" what is important? If we imagine a husband handing his wife flowers, but telling her at that very moment that he does not, nor has he ever, had any feelings for her, would she still be happy to receive the flowers? Even further, the Netziv points out - the entire scenario would be incomprehensible if the man did not recognize the woman to whom he handed the flowers, had no relationship with her at all. Analogously, the sages of the Talmud debated whether any specific act requires active attention and intention, or if an absent-minded gesture is acceptable. Does the husband buy flowers out of habit? Is that enough of a reason? The Netziv points out that this entire question is predicated on there being a relationship between the person buying the flowers and the person to whom they are presented: What a person behaves in the precise manner mandated by Torah Law, but has no consciousness of God or Torah?
This question arises concerning the behavior of ethical non-Jews: If they perform the Noachide laws, but not because they are in any way cognizant of having been commanded to do so, should their gestures be interpreted as fulfillment of these seven commandments? Given the nature of these commandments, it is altogether conceivable that there are those who fulfill the commandments simply because they are decent people. If they do not believe that they were commanded to perform the specific actions, we would be hard-pressed to say that they are performing mitzvot.
The Rambam broaches this subject in his consideration of the possibility that an ethical gentile may have a share in the World to Come. Despite the fact that the majority of the seven Noachide laws are proscriptive, rather than proactive calls for specific action, the Rambam refers to "acceptance" of the Noachide laws:
Whoever accepts the seven Noachide laws and is careful to fulfill them is considered a righteous gentile and has a share in the World to Come. This is so if he accepts them and performs them because the Holy One blessed be He commanded it in the Torah, and informed us via Moshe or teacher, that the Noachides were previously thus commanded. But if he did these commandments because of his own mind, he is not considered a "stranger who lives among us" nor is he a righteous gentile, nor among their wise people. (Rambam, Mishne Torah, Laws of Kings and Wars chapter 8 section 11)
This is the text which is found in the printed edition, however in other texts, notably the Yemenite manuscript, the concluding sentence ends differently:
But if he did these commandments because of his own mind, he is not considered a "stranger who lives among us," nor is he among the righteous gentiles; rather, he is considered among their wise people. (Rambam Mishne Torah Laws of Kings and Wars, Yemenite Manuscript chapter 8 section 115)
According to the Rambam, a mitzva performed by a non-Jew results in a "Share of the World to Come." However, a "good deed," which may be the exact same action as a "mitzvah" but is performed independent of God-consciousness, devoid of a God-Man relationship, cannot by definition be a mitzva. To return to our earlier analogy, we may say that a loving spouse who buys flowers performs an act as means of cementing a relationship with their significant other. The person who presents flowers to a perfect stranger has acted in identical fashion, but without the awareness of the relationship, without the underlying intention to express closeness and love, the action has completely different significance. Although presenting flowers to a total stranger may, indeed, be an act of altruism that may warm another person's heart, no token passed between two strangers can compare to the understanding that is passed between two people involved in a deep and meaningful relationship. I would posit that the Rambam's formulation regarding the gentile who may indeed be wise but is not considered righteous, is akin to this altruist and the flowers presented to a stranger: While all good deeds are rewarded, not all good deeds result in a relationship with God, in the ongoing and eternal relationship that our tradition refers to as "a share in the World to Come." Only one who has a relationship with God can perform a mitzva, an act which forges and solidifies a relationship that lives beyond the confines of our limited, physical world.
What, then, of the good deeds performed by the moral atheist, Jewish or non-Jewish? What impact do these good deeds have? Perhaps some questions are best left unanswered, and we need not attempt to stand in as God's "accountant." Be that as it may, the word "mitzva" would hardly apply to such good deeds. Regarding such deeds as fulfillment of a commandment would be an oxymoron - from the perspective of the person performing the deed, as well as from our perspective.
Rabbi Menachem Twersky, founder of the Chernobyl dynasty (1730-1797) felt that the word 'mitzva' connotes more than "command"; he saw within it the word'b'tzavta', which means togetherness: Every mitzva fulfilled is a point of connection between He who commands and we who are commended and who acquiesce. The result of fulfilling a mitzva is togetherness - what we have referred to elsewhere as 'a rendezvous with God'. Seen from this perspective, the question of the ethical non-believer seems simpler: The question is no longer one of accounting, but of closeness, of communication, and there is no communication when the person performing the act does not believe in God, does not believe that God has spoken, does not believe that God takes an interest in human behavior. It is impossible to perform a mitzva if there is no awareness of God's involvement in our lives; as impossible as the sound of one hand clapping, it is impossible to have a rendezvous of one.6
Our point of departure was Rashi's comment on the strange and impenetrable use of the word ekev in this seemingly-redundant verse. While we may not know which of the various interpretations of this particularly difficult usage to adopt, we should not overlook another component of Rashi's comments on the verse which is often ignored: While the unusual word in the verse may be"ekev," the clause as a whole is centered around the word tishme'un - "hear." The verse as a whole stresses the importance of hearing - according to Rashi, even the oft-trampled mitzvot. But what is meant by the word "hear"? The second half of the verse touches upon performance of the mitzva, fulfilling the commandment, as well as safeguarding the mitzva (presumably, referring to the spirit behind the prescribed actions). What, then, is the verse referring to when it commands us to "hear" or "heed"?
And it will be because you heed these judgments, and safeguard and do them, that the Eternal, your Almighty God shall safeguard and uphold with you the covenant and the mercy which he swore to your fathers. (D'vraim 7:12)
While we might be tempted to translate "heed" or "hearken" as study or learning, the Targum translates tishme'un as "acceptance."
Throughout the Torah, the Targum is fairly consistent in translating "hear" as 'accept'. For example, Adam was not punished for "hearing" the words of Eve, he was punished for listening. The Targum repeatedly translates 'listened' as "accepted her words":
And to Adam he said, Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree, of which I commanded you, saying, 'You shall not eat of it'; cursed is the ground for your sake; in sorrow shall you eat of it all the days of your life. (Bereishit 3:17)
The most famous "listening" is the Shema, in which we are commanded not merely to "hear" that God is One, but to listen and internalize. This founding principle of our faith is known as Kabbalat 'Ol Malchut Shamayim, accepting the Yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven.7
Hear,8 O Israel; The Eternal is our Almighty God, the Eternal is One. (Deuteronomy 4:6)
Similarly, the second section recited in the Shema prayer, found at the end of our present parsha, speaks of 'listening' to the mitzvot. Our Sages refer to this as kabbalat ol mitzvot - accepting the yoke of mitzvot:
And it shall come to pass, if you shall give heed diligently to my commandments which I command you this day, to love the Eternal your God, and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul... (Deuteronomy 11:13)
When the commandments are to be accepted, what is needed is not merely passive hearing or even more active listening; we are to forge a powerful, reciprocal, eternal relationship - not a relationship of the order to which we have become accustomed in the interpersonal sphere, but by accepting God as King and accepting our own role as His servants. The type of listening called for here invites us to be sensitive to even the "minor" commandments, as servants of the King. This type of rapt attention transforms actions that we might well have performed otherwise, or actions that we might otherwise perform without conviction, zeal, or full attention,- into powerful religious experience. It is this type of listening that is our acknowledgement of our relationship with God, and it is this attentiveness that creates the meeting point for our rendezvous with God, Creator and Sustainer of the universe. This attentiveness infuses every act, no matter how small and routine, with supreme significance, for we are in the service of the King. Every commandment becomes a privilege, a sign of the trust the King has in each of his faithful servants, and an opportunity to repay that trust, deepen that trust, and become worthy of that relationship. That is why we are instructed to hear and listen specifically to the "small," "mundane" mitzvot: When we hear in this way, allowing ourselves to concentrate on the significance of each mitzva with which we have been entrusted and reminding ourselves that these are opportunities to reach out to God who has spoken to us, no commandment will ever seem "small."
1. Maharal Gur Aryeh D'vraim 7:12.
2. The Rambam, in his commentary to the Mishna, brings several examples of "light mitzvot," such as being joyful on holidays, and knowledge of the Hebrew language.
3. Ha'amek Davar Bamidbar 15:39.
4. See Shulchan Oruch 60:4, sources and commentaries.
5. Many authorities were aware of this alternate reading. See, for example, Tosfot Yom Tov Avot chapter 3, who "corrects" the text. R. Chanoch Henoch ben R. Yosef David Teitelbaum 1884 - 1943.
6. Sefer Me'or Enayim Parshat Baha'alotcha.
7. See Mishna Brachot 2:2: R. Joshua B. Korhah said: why was the section of 'Hear' placed before that of "And it shall come to pass"? So that one should first accept upon himself the Yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven and then take upon himself the yoke of the commandments.
8. Remarkably, the Targum does not even translate the word Sh'ma in this instance.