August 10, 2006
Small Things Add Up
Parshat Eikev (Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25)
My friend announced that she was off to Hawaii, and I was surprised that she could afford to go when her job paid a minimal salary.
"I saved my pennies," she said.
I know that I often tell a cashier to "keep the pennies," as if the penny is so insignificant, as if it does not matter. My friend, on the other hand, saved hers and went on a dream vacation.
There is a teaching I have heard for years from my wise aunt, which asserts: "It is the nickel-and-dime items that have the most value in life."
The opening sentence of our Torah portion this week, Eikev, agrees with this sentiment. The first few words, "V'hayah eikev tishmeun," literally translate as: "And if you listen and obey these rules and observe them," the Lord will be faithful to you. Our problem is the word "eikev," which is unusual and only appears five times in the Torah. The medieval commentator, Rashi, translates the word "eikev" using another meaning. The word is spelled the same but pronounced "akeiv," which means "heel of a foot."
Rashi continues and explains: "If you will observe the mitzvot that are ordinarily trampled on by the heel of your foot, then God's blessings will follow."
What mitzvot do we tend to ignore? The pennies -- the small, insignificant acts some people forget about. Many of us observe big mitzvot, like fasting on Yom Kippur. But how many non-Orthodox Jews find meaning fasting on Tisha B'Av?
In addition to ritual mitzvot, how many small, insignificant acts do we trample on with our heel? The simple acts of calling a sick friend, writing a thank-you note or sending tzedakah (charitable giving) make a big difference and are too often overlooked.
There is a sweet story about a rabbi who visited a wealthy man who had contributed to his yeshivah. The man was not the least bit interested in Judaism, and he explained to the rabbi that he had been a rebellious teenager and was not accepted into a famous yeshivah. After failing the entrance exams, it was too late to travel home and unexpectedly the head rabbi invited the young man to sleep in his house.
Even though he failed the exams, he was treated like an important guest, and later in the middle of the night, he remembers the rabbi came into his room and the young man said, "It's too cold in here, what shall I do?" The rabbi took off his own jacket and tucked him in.
"That jacket still gives me warmth today," the wealthy man said, "and that is why I continue to give tzedakah to the yeshivah."
It is the small things that merit the blessings. It is the "heel" commandments, the acts we forget about, that can change lives and bring holiness into our world.
I am writing this column while the war with Hezbollah is raging, and I remember how optimistic I was years ago in 1993 during the beginning of the Oslo accords. Although flawed and imperfect, the first year had small but profound results. Arab and Israeli people were shopping in each other's stores and were saying hello.
A small act like a civilized greeting was an opening to recognizing one another as human beings. Perhaps, over time, in spite of the leaders who espoused terrorist politics, tolerance could have replaced the vicious hatred.
This is the message of Eikev. It is the way we walk, the way we find balance and the way we place our feet that give meaning in our lives. May we remember the morning prayer, "Hameichin mitzadei gaver," and thank God for making firm each person's steps, and may we be blessed to walk in humility, health and in peace.
Toba August, rabbi of Adat Shalom in West Los Angeles, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.