Ekev: walking on the heels of God

Ekev- The name of the sidra, is a conundrum. The root meaning of the word is the curve of the heel, and of course the resonance of the word is always Jacob – Ya’akov, so called because he was holding onto the heel of his twin brother Esau at birth.

Usually we translate the word here as ‘because’ or ‘if’.’ so we would simply read the verse that begins this sidra (Deuteronomy 7:12) as And it shall come to pass, because / if you listen to these ordinances, and keep, and do them, the Eternal your God shall keep with you the covenant and the mercy which God swore to your ancestors”, but we could also read it as “following on the heel of listening to these ordinances, your keeping and doing them means the Eternal your God shall keep….”  in other words there is an almost physical and intimate causal relationship, we can see the footprints of where we have walked with God.  There is a clear record of where we have wandered.

This way of reading the verse always makes me think of the footsteps we are said to have left on the surface of the moon, a continuing reminder of our existence and our desire to go further, learn more, dominate our environment. They stay there as a symbol both of our extraordinary ability and our extraordinary carelessness.

The famous medieval commentator Rashi makes an interesting point in his understanding of the word and its context. Unusually for such a grammarian he makes a sermonic point – while also seeing the word ‘ekev’ as connected to the heel of a foot he does not assume it to be about following on the heels of the action, but reads it as “if you will keep the statutes that you view as unimportant, the ones you would ordinarily walk over as if they are not there, then the Eternal your God will keep the covenant …”  

There is an ongoing theme in Torah: God commands us to behave in a whole lot of ways that we don’t find easy to do, caring for the poor, limiting our own greed and desires, remembering our fragility and mortality and the limits to our own ability, working together to create a just and compassionate community. We know ourselves to be commanded and we want to be like this, but we are always straying, always forgetting what is actually important and of lasting worth to give value to that which is transient and unimportant. And regularly our behaviour causes us to be estranged from God, symbolised here in the fact that the rain will no longer be a gift from heaven to the earth, that we will find ourselves on a dried up and unforgiving land, we will be forcibly reminded about what is truly meaningful.  

Rashi suggests that what is really important here is what seems at first glance to be unimportant, that it is all the small mitzvot that we must keep, the ordinary, the mundane, the unglamorous everyday acts of valuing others that we often manage to ignore. And I must say I like the idea that the saving of the world is dependent on the many small acts of kindness that we can do in a day if we choose to do so. But I am also aware of this word “Ekev” and of its associate “Yaakov “ and I remember that we are the particular children of Jacob/Ya’akov and of his better, straightened out self, Israel.

The footsteps we leave in our world as a result of the things we do and the places we venture remain for a long time, and their consequences may impact for generations. We are the Children of Jacob, whose limping gait after meeting the Angel on his way back home after living with Laban, left distinctive footprints;  And we try to be the children of Israel, straightened out at the Ford of Jabok through his wrestling with the Angel God, and whose walk was never the same.

We should be aware of where we walk, and with whom we are walking. We need to observe what we trample unthinkingly underfoot, notice the distinctive mark that our living here makes on the world. If we lived with such an awareness of the small and apparently unimportant acts that would change our world, and if we thought about the footprints we leave behind us, maybe we would be more thoughtful about how we walk through our world.


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