Parashat Eikev begins with Moshe assuring Benei Yisrael that in reward for their observance of the Torah’s laws, God would bless them with prosperity, health, children, and triumph over enemy nations. These rewards are promised “eikev tishme’un” – “because you will obey” God’s laws (or “as a result of your obeying”).
Rashi, based on the Midrash Tanchuma, famously associates the word “eikev” with the word “akeiv” – “heel,” and thus explains that Moshe alludes here to “the ‘light’ mitzvot which a person treads upon with his heels.” Meaning, these rewards are promised in particular for the observance of those commands which people tend to neglect and not take very seriously.
Rav Kalonymus Kalman Shapiro of Piacezna, speaking to Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto in 5701/1941 (printed in Eish Kodesh, Parashat Eikev), suggested an additional insight into the connection between the word “eikev” in this verse and the “heel.” He said that this verse might be alluding to periods when the Torah and its laws are being trampled upon, when oppression and persecution make it all but impossible to properly observe the Torah’s commandments. The verse continues, “u-shmartem va-asitem otam” (literally, “and you observe and perform them”), which the Piacezner Rebbe suggested interpreting to mean, “and you yearn to perform them.” (The root sh.m.r. can be used to mean “anticipate,” as in the Torah’s description in Sefer Bereishit of Yaakov anticipating when Yosef’s dreams would be fulfilled – “ve-aviv shamar et ha-davar.”) At a time when the mitzvot are being “trampled” and thus become inaccessible, we must, at very least, feel a genuine sense of longing and yearning, and truly wish to fulfill the mitzvot that are currently beyond our reach.
This message is relevant not only to times of oppression, but also in regard to whatever limitations we confront. Even if we feel unable to devote the amount of time and energy we ideally should be devoting to learning and mitzvot, and even if we feel incapable of adhering to the standards that we ideally should achieve, we must at very least experience “u-shmartem” – a sincere yearning and desire to reach higher levels, rather than complacently feel content with our current standing.
(Interestingly, two years after the Rebbe of Piacezna put this address into writing, in 5703/1943, he added a note – which was included in the publication of his discourses delivered in the Warsaw Ghetto – clarifying that he presented these words to his followers at a time when there was still hope, when it was still possible to yearn for opportunities to properly observe mitzvot, and when it was thus relevant to admonish the people not to fall into despair and complacency. Two years later, however, the devastation and suffering were so severe that it was no longer possible to experience this sense of longing and aspiration. By that point, he lamented, only God’s redemption could heal the people’s wounded hearts so they could begin to rebuild religious life. The Rebbe recognized that when his audience was no longer receptive to religious admonition, when there was no possibility of such words having any effect upon the people’s hearts, it is best not to admonish, and to instead express sympathy, support and encouragement. He was killed by the Nazis several months later, in the autumn of 1943.)