Heal the Heel and Walk the Straight Path
עֵקֶב: if only, to step upon, because of, end reward
יַעַקֹב: Yaakov, deception, sidestepping
עִקְבְתָא דִּמְשִׁיחָא: the footsteps of the Mashiach
וְהָיָה עֵקֶב תִּשְׁמְעוּן אֵת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים הָאֵלֶּה וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֹתָם וְשָׁמַר ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ לְךָ אֶת הַבְּרִית וְאֶת הַחֶסֶד אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע לַאֲבֹתֶיךָ
And it will be “if only” you will listen to these judgments and you will guard them and do them, Hashem your G-d will guard for you the bris and the kindness that He swore to your fathers.
וְהָיָה עֵקֶב תִּשְׁמְעוּן
Rashi comments that the Torah is telling us to be more careful in the mitzvos that we treat lightly, those that we tend to trample on with our heels.
Ramban translates עֵקֶב as “because of,” as in because of [our] listening to the mitzvos, Hashem will keep His promise and keep the covenant of the fathers, to love us and bless us.
עֵקֶב also denotes “the end,” in context to the reward that we will receive for observing the mitzvos, since in relation to man, the head is first and the heel is last. A baby is born headfirst with the עֵקֶב emerging last.
Targum Onkelos translates עֵקֶב as round, because the heel is round, and because by surrounding ourselves with the mitzvos, Hashem will keep his promise.
The first mention of עֵקֶב in the Torah is in connection with the נָחָשׁ. Part of his punishment was that his legs were removed. Consequently, he lost his ability to stand and must forever crawl on his stomach. Man can stand on him and crush his head, but the snake can bite man’s heel.
Just like poison travels from the heel to the head, so too the yetzer hara starts, just like the snake, with the mitzvos that we treat lightly, i.e., that we trample on with our heels. Aveirah leads to more aveiros, from small ones to big ones, until our minds are poisoned with its venom.
The English term “Achilles’ heel” refers to one’s weakest point, named after a character in Greek mythology. But really the reason for the heel being the weakest point comes from this very idea of the snake from Bereishis.
If you were ever a beach bum in a previous life, having spent many hours basking under the sun, you may have recognized that of all the parts of the body that flies are attracted to, it is most commonly the foot and heel.
The Gemara brings our attention to a fascinating point about reality. It states that rather than it being the snake that bites, it is sin that bites. Although the snake’s venom has the potential to kill, it is also the potential for refuah/to heal. This is seen clearly with the incident of the plague of snakes that came to an end when the Jewish People focused on the נְחַשׁ נְחשֶׁת /copper snake. The snake’s bite in effect allows us the opportunity to rectify the sin — as long as we catch it in time.
In Koheles it says that a crooked thing cannot be made straight, while in the Midrash it says that what is crooked can be straight — seemingly contradictory statements. The difference between them is that the one who is corrupt cannot become straight, however the one who does teshuvah is able to straighten himself.
The Ramban in this parshah attributes עֵקֶב to lashon עִיקוּב/curved, something done in a roundabout way. Contrast that with the name ofיְשׁוּרוּן /Yeshurun, from lashon יָשָׁר/straight, which is the opposite of יַעַקֹב. When יַעַקֹב merited having his name changed, it was because he had struggled with the yetzer hara, who represents roundaboutness, and thereafter was straight, i.e., straight to Hashem.
When the yetzer hara comes to trick us, the weapon he finds most effective is roundaboutness, nothing less than a spiritual curve ball. If he were to attack us straight on, we would see him coming all too easily, and we would back off. Therefore, to be more effective, he disguises himself and attacks us in a roundabout way. This is why the snake, which represents the yetzer hara, does not travel in a straight line but rather in a crisscross motion.
Incidentally, in the pasuk, “Say to the daughters of Yaakov and speak to the sons of Yisrael,” Rashi says that the men are spoken to in a harsh manner while the women need to be spoken to in a soft manner. From our explanation, we can see that men need a direct approach, while women need a roundabout approach. Married men know this all too well; women are impossible when it comes to communication. Everything women intend for their husbands to understand is alluded to in a roundabout way and needs to be figured out. Some examples: “The garbage is full,” means “Please can you empty the garbage.” “I left my phone downstairs,” means “Can you go downstairs and bring me my phone?” “I’m feeling hot,” means “Put on the air conditioning!”
יַעַקֹב: Yaakov, Deception, Sidestepping
Not only was יַעַקֹב called so because he was born hanging onto the heel of Eisav, but he also had to fight and trick Eisav in a roundabout way. After יַעַקֹב stole the brachos from Eisav, Eisav used the lashon of וַיַּעְקְבֵנִי זֶה פַעֲמַיִם/he has deceived me twice, i.e., first with the birthright and now with the blessing. This middah of deception was also employed to outsmart the biggest trickster of them all — Lavan, Mr. White on the outside, yet very corrupt on the inside. When יַעַקֹב finally graduated from the house of Lavan, he was ready to do battle with his brother Eisav. When they met head-on, יַעַקֹב no longer had to resort to the sidestepping tactics of his youth. The fight was a spiritual one, where יַעַקֹב wrestled with his yetzer hara, the Satan, the angel of Eisav. Once יַעַקֹב proved himself a worthy opponent of the yetzer hara, he was given the name יִשׂרְאֵל, יָשָׁר אֵ-ל, which means “straight to Hashem.” As we mentioned above, the Bnei Yisrael are also known as “Yeshurun,” straight, which is the opposite of עִיקוּב.
The Rambam says that we have middos at opposite extremes, and our goal is to choose the middle path, which he also calls the straight path. For example, one should neither be a miser nor a spendthrift, sad nor euphoric, but rather in the middle of every trait. Hashem gave us a seichel/mind in order to weigh our decisions so as not to veer left or right like a snake, but to be levelheaded and lead a life of balance. Not to allow ourselves to be deceived, but rather to be יָשָׁר בְּעֵינֵי ה’/straight in the eyes of Hashem.
עִקְבְתָא דְמְשִיחָאThe Footsteps of the Mashiach
“The footsteps of the Mashiach” can be explained thusly: in every generation there is someone who is fitting to be Mashiach, but it depends on whether his generation is deserving of the Mashiach. The following question is asked: “If the former generations of David HaMelech and Rabi Akiva were not deserving of the Mashiach, how do we, in our generation, ever hope to see the Mashiach?” One of the answers given is that we are in the process of making the primordial man. After Adam sinned, his soul shattered into many pieces, and each successive generation is rebuilding the body of man, starting with the head, which equates to the greater generations, down to our comparatively low generation. Each generation is important, and we are at the heels of it all, which is why our generation has to walk in the dirt. We are literally living in the times known as the footsteps of the Mashiach.
ה’ עֵקֶב עֲנָוָה יִרְאַת
וְעַתָּה יִשְׂרָאֵל מָה ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ שֹׁאֵל מֵעִמָּךְ כִּי אִם לְיִרְאָה אֶת ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ
And now, Yisrael, what is it that Hashem your G-d asks from you? Only to fear Hashem your G-d…
In the middle of the parshah, we are suddenly given a very profound statement that says that all Hashem really wants from us is to fear Him. This is why the Gemara says:הַכֹּל בִּידֵי שָׁמַיִם חוּץ מִיִּרְאַת שָׁמַיִם / everything is in the hands of Heaven except for yiras Shamayim/fear of Heaven. How we reach this prolific goal is hinted to in the very name of the parshah itself, עֵקֶב. In the pasuk עֵקֶב עְֶנָוָה יִרְאַת ה’/on the heels of humility is fear of Hashem, it teaches us that the prerequisite to fear of Hashem is to be humble. What lets us down is arrogance. Hashem warns us not to forget Him and not to attribute everything to our own might and our own hands. So to counteract this, we need to acquire עַנָוָה/humility.
In the above pasuk, by way of Moshe’s expression to the Jewish People that all Hashem asks is to just fear Him, the Gemara asks whether yiras Shamayim is therefore such a simple thing to acquire. It answers by saying that for Moshe, who exemplified the middah of עַנָוָה/humility, it was an easy thing, being that humility is the prerequisite to fear of Heaven. For the rest of the Jewish People, whose level of עַנָוָה is not as high, fear of Heaven is far from being a simple matter.
עַנָוָה allows us to bend when we need to bend, allows us to stand straight without being knocked down. Like a קָנָה/cane, we stand straight, yet when a strong wind blows, we can bend rather than break at the heel. But we can only do this if our heels are strong, by not trampling on the mitzvos, by not allowing the snake to bite us, by crushing the yetzer hara with our heel. Then our heels will be able to carry us and stand us up straight on our feet, and we can acquire this very special middah of yiras Shamayim.