Parashat Ekeb: The Little Things That Aren’t So Little
The opening section of Parashat Ekeb describes the prosperity and good fortune that are promised to Beneh Yisrael if they obey Hashem’s commands. However, the Sages inferred from the second word in this Parasha – the word for which it is named, "Ekeb" – that these blessings are earned by observing a particular kind of Misva. The phrase "Ekeb Tishme’un" literally means, "as a result of obeying." But the word "Ekeb" also means "heel," and as Rashi comments, it is used here to allude to those Misvot which people customarily "tread upon with their heel." In other words, we earn these blessings only if we ensure to observe the Misvot that are commonly ignored and overlooked. We are not necessarily deserving of these rewards for observing the "popular" Misvot, such as Shabbat and Kashrut, vitally important as these Misvot undoubtedly are. We earn these blessings only if we are careful to fulfill the "unpopular" Misvot that people tend to neglect.
To which Misvot does this refer? Which Misvot are the ones that people "trample" on?
I believe that the Sages refer here to our obligations and responsibilities to our fellowman, to the simple, basic acts of consideration and concern for the people around us. When we read Tehillim, or when we attend a Torah class, we feel "holy," we experience an uplifting feeling that gives us a deep sense of satisfaction, knowing that we did something important. Generally, however, this is not the case with simple acts of goodness. Extending a friendly greeting to a new face in the synagogue does not give us the same "high" as an impassioned prayer. Offering a neighbor a lift to the store does not get us excited. And therefore, too often, otherwise religiously observant people "trample" upon these Misvot. Since these and similar simple acts of courtesy do not give us a "holy" feeling, we easily forget how vitally important they are to Torah observance, and so we neglect them.
Of course, I am not saying that the prayers, study and ritualistic elements of Torah life are less important. The Ten Commandments were written on two equal-sized tablets, one presenting our basic obligations to G-d, and the other our basic obligations to our fellowman. Both are equally important, and we must never prioritize one over the other. There is, however, a tendency among many observant Jews to neglect their basic duties to their fellowman, which is due to the tendency to associate "holiness" and "spirituality" specifically with our responsibilities to Hashem. In order to earn the beautiful blessings described here in Parashat Ekeb, we need to ensure not to neglect these "little things," which the Torah reminds us are not "little" at all.
Rav Eliyahu Lopian (1876-1970) told that he once received a generous donation for his yeshiva from a man who was not religiously observant, but exuded genuine love and affection for Hachamim. The Rabbi asked the man why he experienced such strong feelings for Rabbis, if he was not even observant. The man explained that when he was a young man, he had no interest whatsoever in studying Torah, but his father insisted that he travel to Radin and apply for admission to the yeshiva of the renowned Hafetz Haim. The boy, reluctantly, made the trip to Radin and was tested by the great Sage. Much to the youngster’s delight, he failed his exam, and was denied admission into the yeshiva. Afterward, the boy told the Hafetz Haim that he had no train home until the following day, and thus he wanted to sleep over in the yeshiva that night. The Hafetz Haim replied that the yeshiva did not offer hospitality to those who were not students, but he graciously invited the boy to stay in his home. The boy felt very honored to receive such an invitation, and he spent the night at the Hafetz Haim’s home.
Late that night, the Hafetz Haim walked into the boy’s room, assuming he was asleep. The boy heard the great Sage whisper, "Oh my, it’s way too cold in here." He promptly removed his overcoat and placed it on top of his guest to keep him warm during the cold night.
"Even now, 50 years later," the man said to Rav Lopian, "I can still feel the warmth of the Hafetz Haim’s coat."
The Hafetz Haim did many very important things in his life, starting with the composition of seminal Torah works, such as the Mishna Berura and his work on the laws of Lashon Ha’ra. But what affected this young man was not the Hafetz Haim’s brilliant scholarship or inspirational prayer, but rather the simple act of giving him his coat so he could keep warm.
We should certainly aspire to greatness, but we must never forget about "goodness." The word "Ekeb" reminds us that often the most significant Misvot we do are the "little things," the simple everyday acts of courtesy and consideration to the people around us.