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On the Heels (Ekev)

And it will be, because [עקב] you will heed these ordinances and keep them and perform, that the Lord, your God, will keep for you the covenant and the kindness that He swore to your forefathers. And He will love you and bless you and multiply you; He will bless the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your soil, your grain, your wine, and your oil, the offspring of your cattle and the choice of your flocks, in the land which He swore to your forefathers to give you. You shall be blessed above all peoples: There will be no sterile male or barren female among you or among your livestock. And the Lord will remove from you all illness, and all of the evil diseases of Egypt which you knew, He will not set upon you, but He will lay them upon all your enemies (Deut. 7:12-15).

The pledge Moshe makes to bnei Yisrael at the start of this week’s parshah strikes us, at first glance, as largely indistinguishable from dozens of similar exhortations Moshe delivers to bnei Yisrael in the final month of his life. Throughout sefer Devarim, Moshe stresses repeatedly the importance of observing Hashem’s commands and of guarding Hashem’s covenant, while highlighting the reward awaiting those that do so.

foot-310736_960_720.pngTurn your attention, however, to the word “ekev,” which appears in the parshah’s first verse, and which doubles up as the title of our parshah as well. “Ekev” (עקב, in Hebrew) literally means “heel.” By extension, “ekev” can also mean “on the heels of”—or, less semantically, “as a result of;” “since;” “because”—and it is this connotation that the term takes in our parshah’s opening verse: “And it will be, because [עקב] you will heed these ordinances and keep them and perform, that the Lord, your God, will keep for you the covenant and the kindness that He swore to your forefathers (Deut. 7:12).”

This idiomatic use of “ekev” is exceedingly rare in the Torah. In fact, it may function as a technical term of sorts, for it appears in the Torah only five times in total, and always in the context of Hashem’s pledge to grant the land of Israel to Avraham’s descendants (Gen. 22:18, 26:5; Num. 14:42; Deut. 7:12, 8:20). These pledges, it seems, should not be viewed as five independent, unrelated pledges, but rather recognized as alternative iterations of a single, overarching pledge, each of which has been adapted for time and context while remaining fundamentally similar to the others with respect to its key terms and concepts.

Earlier this year, we showed this to be true of the first and second pledges: Hashem’s pledge to Avraham, in parshat Vayera, is practically mimicked in Hashem’s pledge to Yitzchak, in parshat Toldot. Well, it turns out that when we compare those two pledges to the one in our parshah, Ekev, we find that they share many of these same similarities, both linguistically and conceptually.

Hashem’s pledge to Avraham:

And he said, “By Myself have I sworn, says the Lord, that because you have done this thing and you did not withhold your son, your only one, That I will surely bless you, and I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens and as the sand that is on the seashore, and your seed will inherit the land of their enemies. And through your children shall be blessed all the nations of the world, because you hearkened to My voice” (Gen. 22:16-18).

Hashem’s pledge to Yitzchak:

And the Lord appeared to him, and said, “Do not go down to Egypt; dwell in the land that I will tell you. Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you, and I will bless you, for to you and to your seed will I give all these lands, and I will establish the oath that I swore to Abraham, your father. And I will multiply your seed like the stars of the heavens, and I will give your seed all these lands, and through your children shall be blessed all the nations of the world. Because Abraham hearkened to My voice, and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My instructions” (Gen. 26:2-5).

Key commonalities between these two pledges and Moshe’s:

Hashem to Avraham Hashem to Yitzchak Moshe to Bnei Yisrael
By Myself have I sworn [בי נשבעתי]  I will establish the oath that I swore [השבועה אשר נשבעתי] to Abraham, your father   [לאברהם אביך] The Lord, your God, will keep for you the covenant and the kindness that He swore to your forefathers  [אשר נשבע לאבותיך]
I will surely bless you [ברך אברכך]  I will bless you [ואברכך] He will bless you [וברכך]
And I will greatly multiply your seed [והרבה ארבה את זרעך] as the stars of the heavens And I will multiply your seed [והרביתי את זרעך] like the stars of the heavens And He will multiply you [והרבך] and bless the fruit of your womb
Your descendants will inherit the cities of their enemies And I will give your seed all these lands He will bless you and multiply you… in the land which He swore to your forefathers to give you (Later: And you shall consume all the peoples which the Lord your God gives you)
And through your children shall be blessed all the nations of the world  [והתברכו בזרעך כל גויי הארץ] And through your children shall be blessed all the nations of the world  [והתברכו בזרעך כל גויי הארץ] You shall be blessed above all peoples [ברוך תהיה מכל העמים]
Because you hearkened to My voice [עקב אשר שמעת בקולי] Because Abraham hearkened to My voice [עקב אשר שמע אברהם בקולי] and preserved My safeguard [וישמר משמרתי] Because you will hearken [עקב תשמעון] to these ordinances and preserve them [ושמרתם] and perform them… therefore the Lord your God will preserve [ושמר] the covenant…

[Besides the above, and incidental to it, note that other portions of Moshe’s pledge point subtly to the backstory in parshat Toldot, specifically. For instance: (a) “There will be no sterile man or barren woman [עקר ועקרה] among you” vs. “And Isaac prayed to the Lord opposite his wife because she was barren [עקרה]” (Gen. 25:21); (b) “He will bless the fruit of your womb [בטנך]” vs. “Behold, there were twins in her womb [בטנה]” (Gen. 25:24); (c) “And the Lord will remove from you all illness, and all of the evil diseases of Egypt which you knew” vs. “And the Lord appeared to him [Isaac], and said, ‘Do not go down to Egypt; dwell in the land that I will tell you….’”; (d) “He will bless… the offspring of your cattle and the choice of your flocks” vs. “And the man [=Isaac] became great, and he grew constantly greater until he had grown very great, and he had possessions of sheep and possessions of cattle…” (Gen. 26:13-14).]

We thus observe that Moshe’s pledge in this week’s parshah is in fact a carefully modified citation of the earlier pledge delivered by Hashem to Avraham and Yitzchak. Moshe is deliberately invoking specific covenantal formulations that are no doubt familiar to bnei Yisrael, and which serve thereby to situate the present moment within its broader historical context.

Yet Moshe does not simply repeat the terms of the earlier pledge verbatim—quite the contrary, in fact. To Avraham, Hashem had conditioned the covenant with bnei Yisrael upon Avraham’s righteousness: עקב אשר שמעת בקולי—“because you hearkened to my voice.” Likewise, Yitzchak was informed that it was in his father’s merit that Yitzchak would reap the benefits of this covenant: עקב אשר שמע אברהם בקולי—“because Avraham hearkened to my voice.” Moshe’s message, however, is markedly different: while he does, at the very end of last week’s parshah¸ attribute the exodus from Egypt in large part to zechut avot, i.e. “the merit of the fathers” (Deut. 7:8), it is precisely against that backdrop that he shifts gears in proclaiming, at the start of this week’s parshah: והיה עקב תשמעון— “And it will be, because you will heed these ordinances and keep them and perform, that the Lord, your God, will keep for you the covenant and the kindness that He swore to your forefathers.” The upshot is clear: past relations with Hashem may have relied almost exclusively upon zechut avot; moving forward, however, only zechut avot that is coupled with zechut banim, i.e., the independent merit of the children, will sustain bnei Yisrael upon their covenantal homeland. This is consistent with Moshe’s recurring argument in sefer Devarim, captured most directly, perhaps, through his insistence earlier in last week’s parshah that “it was not with our forefathers did the Lord make this covenant, but with us, we, all of whom are here alive today” (Deut. 5:3). The reference there is to a later covenant, mind you—the covenant at Sinai—but the idea is just the same.[i]

And so, in the final analysis, it emerges that Moshe’s speech at the start of this week’s parshah is not only retrospective, in the sense that it draws upon familiar covenantal language from earlier in the Torah. It is, in fact, positively revolutionary, for, in his own brilliant way, Moshe uses the very terminology previously associated with one message (associative merit) and reshapes it to emphasize precisely the inverse imperative (personal accountability).[ii]

The lesson, for bnei Yisrael, and indeed, for us all, is clear. We must always remain cognizant of zechut avot, and, more broadly, of the role our parents and ancestors play in creating the conditions for our success, spiritually as well as materially. Yet we dare not rest on these laurels. Instead, we who follow “on the heels” of giants must endeavor to actively advance their legacy through our own efforts and achievements. Only thus can we rightly stake our claims to “the land promised to your forefathers.”

Shabbat shalom!


[i] For more on this theme, see the 2015 article on parshat Vaetchanan, “Immanence and Intermediacy.”

[ii] This is not to suggest that Moshe would not return to the theme of zechut avot in sefer Devarim; indeed, later in our own parshah, he reminds the people in no uncertain terms that they are not inheriting the land on their own merits, but rather on those of their ancestors:

Do not say to yourself, when the Lord, your God, has repelled them from before you, saying, “Because of my righteousness, the Lord has brought me to possess this land,” and [that] because of the wickedness of these nations, the Lord drives them out from before you. Not because of your righteousness or because of the honesty of your heart, do you come to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations, the Lord your God drives them out from before you, and in order to establish the matter that the Lord swore to your forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. You shall know that, not because of your righteousness, the Lord, your God, gives you this land to possess it; for you are a stiffnecked people (Deut. 9:4-6).

Yet while bnei Yisrael have their ancestors to thank for planting the seeds of the exodus and the conquest of eretz Yisrael, Moshe’s message is that their ability to flourish within the land over the long term ultimately depends upon their own merits.


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