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One Step at a Time on the Path to Good Deeds

August 2, 2007 By:
Rabbi David Gutterman
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The colloquial expression "well-heeled" means to be wealthy. Jewishly, it might mean something else -- at least we can infer so from this week's Torah portion.

V'haya Eikev Tish'm'un begins our text. Our JPS translation reads: "And if you obey these rules and observe them carefully, the Lord your God will maintain faithfully for you the covenant that He made on oath with your fathers."

Let's focus on a word for a moment. The word is eikev, and it literally means "heel" -- as in the heel of one's foot. Although the Aramaic translation of Onkelos suggests that this word signals a sort of reciprocal expression, that is, "as a reward or quid pro quo for observing the commandments, God will abide by His commitments to you" -- it is the comment of Rashi (1040-1105) that most fascinates me.

Listen to how this master commentator translates the verse. "If one observes the light Mitzvot that normally one tramples on with one's heel ... ," then the covenant will be assured. Rashi translates the word eikev literally, in order for us to gain an interesting insight.

Can one fulfill a mitzvah with one's heel? Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) taught a civil-rights generation a brilliant and penetrating insight. He was asked, after having marched in Selma, Ala., with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., what lesson he had learned. "I learned that one can pray with one's feet."

The towering Chasidic master, the Kotzker Rebbe, (Menachem Mendel Morgenstern, 1787-1859) made a sharp inference. Why does the Torah use such a strange locution in this opening verse, as if to imply that it is referring to a specific act? Is there a mitzvah that one can literally fulfill with one's heel?

Yes, answered the Kotzker Rebbe, and it's the mitzvah of going to Israel. Every step that one takes in Israel, every placement of one's heel on the land of Eretz Yisrael is a mitzvah. Our tradition suggests kol dalet amot b'eretz yisrael -- mitzvah -- the mere act of walking and traversing the Land of Israel is the fulfillment of a divine deed. Indeed, walking the land is sacred to both the sole and the soul. How much more so in our day.

There is also a beautiful echo in this word. The metaphor of walking to do a mitzvah, of putting one's heel to the mission also implies that one leaves an impression. When one walks, one literally puts weight to the task, and symbolically gives gravitas to the endeavor.

Doing a mitzvah is putting down footsteps; it's charting the path for further holy activity. Engaging the sacred, walking in the footsteps of Jewish tradition, walking on the heels of Jewish values makes an impression, literally and figuratively.

Making An Imprint
A true story related by students of the world-renowned Volozhin Yeshiva. When the first snow storm of the season came to Volozhin, Lithuania, the great rabbi and dean of this famed yeshiva, Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik (1853-1918), put on special snowshoes and walked from his home to the school.

It is recorded that these snowshoes were twice the size of his foot. When asked by a student the source of this perplexing behavior, Rabbi Soloveitchik replied, "For some inexplicable reason, people give me honor. And I know that the moment I leave my house and am seen in public, people will follow me. As a Jewish leader, my obligation is to lay down the widest possible path for people to follow."

Whenever we perform a mitzvah, whenever we engage in holy activity, whenever we visit the sick, comfort the mourner, learn Torah, give tzedakah or perform acts of kindness -- we, too, are on our way to becoming well-heeled Jews. And this is unquestionably the greatest wealth that we can possess.

Rabbi David Gutterman is the executive director of the Vaad: Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.

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