Ekev

by Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz

Our portion of the week begins "If only you listen to these words..." The operative word in this sentence is ekev, if only, which can be understood as representing a quid quo pro so to speak. If only you listen to these words then there will follow a particular result, in this instance ,as the passage continues, "...then the L‑rd your G‑d will keep in mind the covenant and love with which he made an oath to your fathers." The word ekev as well describes the method by which one is to "listen to these words." For the Hebrew word akav, spelled identically as ekev means heel. From this we can deduce that the method of "listening" required by the Torah is subservience to the Will of G‑d. For just as the heel of the human body bears the weight of the entire individual and is a major factor in providing the balance so essential for us to walk upright, so too we, as Jews, must bear the weight of the Torah commands maintaining the spiritual and emotional balance of the collective "body" of humankind.

One may rightly ask, "Is there no room then in Judaism for questioning? Is the expression of our personal frustration resulting from our inability to comprehend the Divine purpose forbidden?" Strangely enough we can find the answer to this fundamental question of Jewish Faith within the names of our Patriarchs Abraham and Jacob. The Torah states that G‑d changed the names of our first and third Patriarchs. "No longer shall you be called Abram your name shall become Abraham, for I have set you up as the father of a horde of nations." (Genesis 17, 5) and "Your name shall no longer be said to be Jacob, but Israel. You have become great before G‑d and man, You have won." (Genesis 32, 29). Yet a cursory review of the Torah would reveal to anyone the simple fact that while Abraham is never referred to as Abram after his name change, the Torah immediately after Jacob is named Israel, refers to him once again, in the very next passage, as Jacob and continues to do so time and time again! In the personification of true tephilah, true prayer, the Amidah recited three times daily, we state "the G‑d of Abraham the G‑d of Isaac and the G‑d of Jacob" not Israel. Why? One answer provided by our Sages is that the name Abraham encompasses all that the name Abram represented and then some.

The insertion of the letter heh, with a numerical value of 5 represented that Abram had reached a new spiritual level of awareness. In the physical day to day experience, the domain of the 5 senses, seeing, hearing, touching, tasting and smelling he was immersed in G‑dlines as well. In the case of Jacob however, the name Israel represents a dissimilar concept from that of Jacob. Yaakov, Jacob, shares the same Hebrew root letters with the word akav, heel. Denoting complete subservience to G‑d's Will it stands in stark contrast to the name Israel, bestowed upon Jacob after his battle with the Angel culminating with the response by the Angel, "You won." It would seem then that there is place in Judaism for battle with G‑d. One of the shining luminaries of Hasidic lore is Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev. Living during the later part of the eighteenth century and early part of the nineteenth, he was witness to much suffering in the Jewish world. It was said of this great Master that when an individual poured out the pain of his/her soul to the Berdichever, upon his/her parting, the pain expressed was more profoundly felt by Rabbi Levi Yitzchak than it was by the person who had represented it to him. It is said of his passing, that Rabbi Levi Yitzchak's soul could no longer bear any more Jewish pain.

It was literally supersaturated with the anguish of our People. Yet this Zadik, on one Kol Nidrei night did a seemingly unthinkable act for a believing Jew. Standing silent before the reader's table, rather than beginning the Kol Nidrei prayer, he declared that he was calling the Ribbono Shel Olam to a Din Torah, he was calling G‑d before the Jewish Court. The story then goes on to tell us of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak's recitation of the litany of suffering our People endured. With tears streaming down his Holy face he reminds G‑d that through it all the Jewish People have remained loyal to His Will. He simply could not come to peace with the reality of Jewish life - the seeming unfairness of it all. Yet after all this heart felt declaration on behalf of a suffering and beleaguered People was completed, he once again accepted the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven upon himself commencing the chanting of the Kol Nidrei.

A number of years ago I visited the home of a young couple sitting Shiva for their child of six months, their only child, who had died of crib death. When I entered their home I immediately noticed that the young mother seemed as if in a trance. No emotion, sometimes responding with one word answers, she was completely "out of it." I asked her, "Aren't you mad at G‑d for taking your baby?" She looked at me with a puzzled expression. "But Rabbi, aren't we to accept G‑d's Will?" "Of course we are," I replied. "But shouldn't we in a relationship which we define as one of father and child, Aveinu Shebashamayim, our Heavenly Father, be able to express our frustration and pain when we cannot understand His Will?" This young mother, filled to overflowing with her personal agony, began to scream, "G‑d, why did you take my baby? How could you do this to me?" She began crying bitter tears. After about ten minutes those present were finally able to give her some comfort. Months later I met one of her parents who told me that until I had visited the Shiva house there was real concern regarding the future of this young woman's mental stability. Crying out, venting her pain, her frustration with G‑d, having catharsis, allowed her to begin the healing process. Now months later she is back at work. More importantly she and her husband are eagerly looking forward to the birth of a child.

Now we can understand why in the religious Testament of our People, the Torah, Jacob is always Jacob just as he is in our prayers. For these instances reflect the desire of the Jewish People to take upon themselves the Yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven, subservience to the Will of G‑d. Yet we are Am Yisrael, the People of Israel, who, because of our life experiences, must be able to express our frustration with G‑d when we cannot comprehend the purpose for our personal and collective pain. When we are the perfect blend of Yaakov/Yisrael, Jacob/Israel then and only then are we truly a Holy Nation; an important thought to keep in mind as we ready ourselves for the High Holy Days. Let us pray that just as Jacob of old, G‑d's response to our human expression this High Holy Day season will be "you won."