Friday, August 07, 2009

Parshat Ekev - פרשת עקב

"והיה עקב תשמעון את המשפטים האלה ושמרתם ועשיתם אתם, ושמר ה' אלקיך לך את הברית ואת החסד אשר נשבע לאבותיך."
(דברים ז', יב)

The Rashi on this Pasuk is one of the most well-known on the entire Torah, and most people have come to understand the verse above in light of the way in which Rashi explains the word 'Ekev.' Rashi explains the word עקב as "if you heed the 'light' commandments that a person tramples with their heel." Rashi's message is that the word 'Ekev' which can mean following; as a result of; or after, is formed from the root ע - ק - ב, which are the same root letters for the Hebrew word for heel. Rashi draws upon the Maharal who teaches that the purpose of the word Ekev in this context is to teach us that we should perform all the mitvot in the Torah, and to be careful with ones that 'get trampled upon.'

While this is a perfectly good explanation of the Pasuk, a D'var Torah I read this week by R' Ari Kahn makes an interesting point: "While the unusual word in the verse may be 'ekev,' the clause as a whole is centered around the word tishme'un - 'hear.'" The point is well made - what of the crucial word Tishme'un - what is meant by the word 'hear?'

The answer R' Kahn proposes is to be sourced in the Targum Onkelos. The Targum normally translates the words of the Torah, but in the case of 'Tishme'un,' there is more of a replacement than a translation as he renders it as 'Ditkablun'- acceptance.

Throughout the five sefarim of the Chumash, the Targum, a well-known and universally accepted Aramaic translation of the Torah, consistently translates terminology for 'hearing' as 'accepting'. If we refer to Parshat B'reishit, we see that the Torah records Adam HaRishon as having been punished for listening to the words of Chava. But the Targum Onkelos writes that Adam was punished for having accepted the words of Chava. Semantics, or is there something more to be found here?

All over the Torah and Jewish liturgy we find references to the human capacity to listen. The most famous instance of 'listening' is found the Shema, the cardinal prayer of Jewish faith, in which we are commanded to 'hear' that Hashem is One. Of course, the word 'hear' means not just to absorb sound via our ears, but also to listen and internalize. This fundamental principle of our faith is known as Kabbalat Ol Malchut Shamayim.

As a child, I remember learning that there are two similar words in the English language, and that these words each have a distinct meaning. The words are 'hear' and 'listen.' I was taught that when one hears something, he physically takes in a noise, but doesn't necessarily process what he has heard. When one listens, on the other hand, he pays attention to that which is being said.

In the Torah however, there is only one expression used; that of 'Shmiah' - a word we traditionally translate as 'hearing,' but is actually more closely aligned to the meaning of listening as defined above.

The lesson to be learned is not merely a semantic one. As R' Kahn puts it: "When the Torah's commandments are to be accepted, what is needed is not merely passive hearing or even more active listening; we are to forge a powerful, reciprocal, eternal relationship - not a relationship of the order to which we have become accustomed in the interpersonal sphere, but by accepting God as King and accepting our own role as His servants. The type of listening called for here invites us to be sensitive to even the "minor" commandments, as servants of the King. This type of rapt attention transforms actions that we might well have performed otherwise, or actions that we might otherwise perform without conviction, zeal, or full attention,- into powerful religious experience. It is this type of listening that is our acknowledgment of our relationship with God, and it is this attentiveness that creates the meeting point for our rendezvous with God, Creator and Sustainer of the universe. This attentiveness infuses every act, no matter how small and routine, with supreme significance, for we are in the service of the King. Every commandment becomes a privilege, a sign of the trust the King has in each of his faithful servants, and an opportunity to repay that trust, deepen that trust, and become worthy of that relationship. That is why we are instructed to hear and listen specifically to the 'small,' 'mundane' mitzvot: When we hear in this way, allowing ourselves to concentrate on the significance of each mitzva with which we have been entrusted and reminding ourselves that these are opportunities to reach out to God who has spoken to us, no commandment will ever seem 'small.'"

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!

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