Parshat Ekev: “God is in the details”
Rabbi Gal and Talya Ben Meir are former Beren-Amiel shlichim who served as educators at the Robert M. Beren Academy in Houston, Texas
This week’s portion of Ekev is well liked by rabbis and public speakers due to two well-known topics which appear in it and which can be easily talked about and elaborated upon without much preparation. In fact, there are a number of Torah portions that lend themselves to popular interpretations and debates and, as such, are known to be the “dream-portions” of any rabbi who teaches young students or prepares boys for their Bar Mitzvah sermons. Such sermons are usually comprised of select commentaries on the weekly parsha, which are most suitable in terms of the message they convey and the relevance they may have to the Bar Mitzvah boy, in terms of “coming of age” and other aspects of life.
On the one hand, as a rabbi attempting to write a few words about the portion of Ekev, I am very much tempted to write about a topic or verse in which most people are less versed, and thereby impress readers with a novel idea or an original thought.
On the other hand, I also know that one of the most important things to remember as a shaliach is that it is not always necessary to reinvent the wheel; rather, it is oftentimes much wiser to revert to well-known and well-liked ideas and lessons with which people readily identify.
I will therefore discuss the two most celebrated themes in this week’s parsha, and try to connect these to the world of emissary work through my experience as a rabbi who was fortunate enough to embark on an educational shlichut in both the United States and Canada.
The first idea I would like to elaborate upon relates to the name of the parsha – Ekev. According to Rashi, this word serves as a reminder to observe even those mitzvot that are perceived as being “less important” and are thus easily forgotten, or “trampled upon with one’s heel [the Hebrew word “akev “meaning ankle is reminiscent of “ekev“]”. I think this message reverberates with everybody, and can be easily connected to daily life. Let me give a few examples.
If you, in your capacity as shlichim, happen to be visiting the home of one of the members of your community, you will easily be able to take the ideas presented here and share with your hosts. You can always praise them for the great pains they have taken in making the visit/the meal as perfect as it was to “the very last detail”.
If you are addressing the community in honor of a Bar Mitzva boy, you can always highlight the fact that coming of “mitzvah age” means being committed to the observance of all the mitzvot, even those that are less prominent, much like that one tiny spice that makes or breaks the gourmet dish.
Let me add that even tiny actions, which hardly require any effort on our part, such as saying hello to people with a smile, might ultimately impact the success of our emissary work.
The role of shlichim is to be sensitive to the general mood of the people with whom they are directly involved, whether it is in the school where he or she work as educators, or in the community where he serves in a rabbinical position. The shaliach must always be vigilant, aware of the changes that take place throughout the shlichut period, even when the events in question are trivial – for example, when a new Sefer Torah is brought in, when there is a family celebration or loss. This simply means to be there for the community members, hands on, even at regular lifetime moments, when it is hardly expected of us to notice the subtle changes that take place.
The second important theme in our parsha relates to arrogance and pride, qualities which make us forget our Torah, and blind our eyes to the fact that God is the one who ultimately empowers us, enabling us to succeed. It is customary, when elaborating upon this notion, to mention the State of Israel and the Israelis who were fortunate enough to build their homes in the new homeland and make aliya, and warn them against becoming arrogant and forgetting that He had made it all possible. However, in my view, the shaliach should never talk ill of those who live in Israel, nor get into a heated debate about the real estate market in Israel. Here, then, is a completely new paradigm, which (to my great dismay) I did not find in the writings of the Rambam.
I believe that arrogance often makes people forget both the need and the right to give of themselves to their community. Often, people who have always invested in the community start drifting away once they hit the jackpot – they suddenly do not find the time to attend the weekly shiur, or help set up the kiddush on Shabbat. Of course, this does not stem from any ill intentions, but, as is often the case, money does strange things to people, often causing them to lose sight of the important things.
The sad thing is that these same individuals had striven to achieve success with the aim of doing good things, promising themselves that once the desired goal was achieved, it would be used for helping others. This is where the opportunity lies for us, as shlichim, because we can turn the negative aspects into positive ones. What do I mean? We can focus on praising those individuals who have achieved great success and wealth and yet have chosen to remain part and parcel of the community, rather than standing aloof. These individuals (and many other community members) are driven by true devotion, and also feel a strong sense of belonging.
In conclusion, if we tie together these two central ideas from Parshat Ekev, we could even say that they represent two sides of the same coin. The first: on the road to achieving success and rising up in life one must never neglect the tiny details. The second: once the desired success is achieved, one must face the challenges of success heads on.
May we, as shlichim, merit to never lose sight of the minute details, those seeming trifles, and remember to praise and show gratitude to all the members of our community who invest of their time and their resources out of the sheer goodness of their hearts. Often we get blinded by the success of others and foster negative feelings towards them. Let us, rather, rejoice in their success and pray that God continues to shower great abundance upon all the good Jews living in the Jewish communities of the Diaspora, those generous individuals who, despite their personal success, keep giving of themselves and contributing to the Jewish community which they perceive as their extended family.
The Jewish community where we served as shlichim for three years is a Modern Orthodox community comprising 300 families affiliated with the United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston. A few blocks away from the synagogue building one can find the Robert M. Beren Academy, a Jewish day school, which extends over an area of about ten acres. Our role there was to serve as teachers – the only ones from Israel – in a school attended by 250 students, and to engage with the community by giving shiurim and organizing informal activities.