Parshat Eikev’s unusual opening words, “v’hayah eikev tishmeo-on,” set the stage for an important reality check on our lives past and present. Far from being glorious and self-serving, the history that Moshe recalls in these final addresses to the people is full of less than noble incidents of complaints, grumblings, and even rebellion. Many of these events are rooted in a sense of despair at the Israelites’ inability to overcome a particular set of difficult circumstances. This experience is hinted at by the opening word “eikev,” which is a word of reprobation but also means “heel.” The word that follows is “tishmeo’on,” which denotes hearing. As such this expression may also be read and understood as hearing God’s word and feeling His presence in our lives, not only when we are exalted and happy, but also when we are low and depressed, literally “down on our heels.”
One of our greatest challenges in society today as we confront the vicissitudes of life with economic uncertainty and other threats to life, liberty, and our pursuit of happiness can be found in our inability to connect with ourselves and get down to basics. We live on a perennial fast-track and have lost the capacity for hearing the inner voice and contemplative self. An increase in technology has not saved us time as much as it has created more work. We are forever on a tether and unable to escape the business of “busy-ness.” Yet, coursing through this sedra is a veritable self-help session: lessons in finding faith amid the prosaic moments, despite seemingly insurmountable and highly distracting obstacles. Various statements call on our people, then and now, to reexamine our hard-held assumptions and perhaps lighten up a bit and focus on those matters that are well within one’s ability to control.
“For man does not live by bread alone” (Deut. 8:3) is a wake-up call to reclaim one’s soul and essence. We are not judged by what we acquire as much as by what we might inspire. And one need not flee to an ashram to find peace of mind and learn to meditate. Rather we are each endowed with portable tools that allow us to pause and reflect. The rhythms of Jewish life through prayer and sacred moments enable one to pull back and recalibrate so as to avoid emotional overload and fatigue. Study and song are but some of the elements that are brief and strategic and can be easily employed to regain calm and perspective. When I was a hospital chaplain I used to begin my visits on the top floor and sing in the stairwells as I moved through the various units and observed the intensity of illness. It did not diminish what I saw and felt at the bedside but it reminded me of an ever present resource to soften the severity of life’s incongruities. Sadly, “tefilah,” in the real sense, as personal reflection and self-examination, remains a grossly underutilized capacity for so many. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz once noted that “we Jews might know how to pray but we don’t know how to daven.”
Consider how many ways and instances the verb “sh’ma” is mentioned in this and the prior Torah portion; enjoining us to reclaim the resonance of the “kol de’mama daka,” one’s “small still voice,” and take heed of our actions and perhaps skewed priorities. “And you will say in your heart, ‘My strength and the might of my hand have produced all of this wealth.'” (Deut. 8:17) Here too is an example of exaggerated self-importance.
In this vein it is related that the great chasidic Master and champion of the common man, Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, once noticed a person who seemed to be in a great rush, and asked him why he was in such a hurry. The man replied, “I am pursuing my livelihood and so I cannot waste a moment from earning enough to support myself and my family.”
Reb Levi Yitzchak could only retort, “But how do you know that your livelihood is in front of you that you must run so fast in its pursuit? Perhaps it is right here and you are instead running away from it…”
So often the resources for blessing and success are right in front of us; yet convinced that bounty and wealth lie elsewhere, we flee from our indigenous resources for goodness and growth. This sedra of Eikev, then, from its outset and embedded in various statements throughout, instructs us to “dig our heels” into what really matters in life and not lose sight or sound of what can and will sustain us through thick and thin.