Our parashah opens: "Ve'hayah eikev / It shall follow when you
hearken to these ordinances, and you observe and perform them:
Hashem, your G-d, will safeguard for you the covenant and the
kindness that He swore to your forefathers." Literally, the word
"eikev" means "heel," leading our Sages to comment that we must
observe even the seemingly small mitzvot that many people "walk
all over" with their heels.
R' Aryeh Leib Zunz z"l (1765-1833; rabbi of Plock, Poland and
prolific author) observes that this idea may explain the
connection between the first verse of our parashah and the final
verse of last week's reading. That pasuk states: "You shall
observe the commandment, and the decrees and the ordinances that
I command you today, to perform them." Say our Sages: "Today -
in this World - to perform them, and tomorrow - in the World-to-
Come - to receive their reward." Generally speaking, man is not
rewarded during his lifetime for his good deeds. But more than
that: the Torah does not even tell us what the rewards for the
various mitzvot will be. Why? Because if we knew the rewards
for the mitzvot we would ignore the "small" ones and do only the
"big" ones. "Today to perform them - even the ones upon which
other people tread."
There is another reason that the reward for the mitzvot is not
- indeed, cannot be - spelled out in the Torah. The Midrash
states that Hashem rewards for each mitzvah "on the heel" of the
one who does it. R' Zunz explains: The reward for a mitzvah
depends on many factors including, for example, the love and
enthusiasm with which one does it. The reward for a particular
mitzvah may be different for different people; it follows in the
footsteps of the person doing the good deed. (Kometz Haminchah)
"Not by bread alone does man live, rather by everything that
emanates from the mouth of G-d does man live." (8:3)
"You shall teach them to your children to discuss them . . ." (11:19)
R' Aharon Berachiah of Modena z"l (Italy; died 1639) writes:
Hashem has given us three specific mitzvot corresponding to three
specific favors that He does for us. Those three favors are that
He gives us children, life, and sustenance.
Corresponding to the gift of life, Hashem gave us the mitzvah
of Machatzit Ha'shekel / giving half a shekel to the Temple to
buy communal sacrifices. The Gemara (Niddah 31a) teaches that
there are three partners in creating a life: a mother, a father
and G-d. Our Sages teach further that a person's mother and
father each contributes five major characteristics to their
child, while G-d supplies ten attributes. This is alluded to by
the mitzvah of Machatzit Ha'shekel, for one shekel equals twenty
gera (smaller coins); thus, half a shekel equals ten gera.
Today, in the absence of the Bet Hamikdash, the Machatzit
Ha'shekel is replaced by other forms of charity. Charity, too,
is related to life. In fact, we are taught in Mishlei (10:2),
"Charity saves from death." [Ed. note: R' Aharon Berachiah
discusses many other connections between the Machatzit Ha'shekel,
charity, and life.]
Corresponding to the gift of children, G-d gave us the mitzvah
of Torah study. This is alluded to by the verse (Hoshea 4:6):
"As you have forgotten the Torah of your G-d, I, too, will forget
your children." Also, there is a clear connection between Torah
study and having children, for one must study Torah in order to
fulfill the commandment quoted above, "You shall teach them to
your children . . ."
Finally, corresponding to the gift of sustenance, we were given
the mitzvah of building the Temple. Today, we have the mitzvah
of building shuls in which to pray. This reminds us that it is
not our food that sustains us. As the verse says, "Not by bread
alone does man live, rather by everything that emanates from the
mouth of G-d does man live." Sometimes, eating makes a person
ill or even poisons him. However, we pray to Hashem for the
fulfillment of the verse (Shmot 23:25), "He shall bless your
bread and your water, and shall remove illness from your midst
[or `your insides']."
(Derashot Ma'avar Yabok: Parashat Ki Tissa)
"And you will eat, and you will be satiated, and you shall
bless Hashem your G-d . . ." (8:10)
In his work on Torah-derived table manners, Rabbenu Bachya ben
Asher z"l (Spain; 14th century) writes:
When one finishes eating he should remain at the table for some
time. Chazal teach (Berachot 54b), "If one extends his meal, his
life will be extended." Why? Because the longer a person sits
at the table, the greater the likelihood that a poor person will
chance by and will be fed. The prophet (Yechezkel 41:22) teaches
this same idea by using the words "altar" and "table"
interchangeably. Chazal explain that just as one's sins are
atoned for upon the altar, so they are forgiven when one feeds
the poor at his table. (So great is this mitzvah, writes R'
Bachya, that some people had their coffins built from the wood of
their table so that the boards could "testify" on their behalf
before the Heavenly court.)
One is obligated to speak divrei Torah while sitting at the
table. Our Sages teach (Avot, ch.3) that if one eats at a table
where divrei Torah are said, it is as if he has eaten at G-d's
table. However, if he eats at a table where no divrei Torah are
spoken, it is as if he ate from sacrifices brought before idols.
Why such harsh words? To teach man that he was not created in
order to eat and to drink, but in order to study Torah.
(Shulchan Shel Arbah)
"And He will restrain the heavens, and there will be no
rain, and the earth will not yield its produce." (11:17)
There is a Midrash called Perek Shirah that lists the songs
"sung" by various animals and even inanimate creations. In his
commentary to that Midrash, R' Moshe of Trani z"l ("Mabit"; 16th
century; Tzefat) writes that there are two ways to understand the
idea that non-speaking creatures and inanimate objects praise G-d.
First, Chazal say that every blade of grass has an angel in
heaven that tells it to grow. Presumably, this is true of other
creations as well. Perhaps the Midrash does not mean that plants
and animals literally praise G-d. Rather, it is that angel which
sings praise to Hashem on behalf of the plant or animal which it
Alternatively, the above verse from our parashah can help us
understand that plants, animals, and even inanimate objects
literally praise G-d. The Gemara (Ketubot 112a) relates: R'
Yehoshua ben Levi went to Gavla (a place), where bunches of
grapes grew to the size of calves. R' Yehoshua asked, "Why are
there calves among the vines?"
"Those are not calves, they are grapes," he was told.
Addressing himself to the fruit, R' Yehoshua ben Levi said,
"For whom are you growing - for the Arabs who surround us? Hold
back your fruit!"
The following year, the sage R' Chiya visited Gavla and saw
bunches of grapes the size of small goats (smaller than calves).
"Why are there kids among the vines?" he asked.
"Be silent," he was told, "lest you do to our grapes what your
Mabit comments: As both our verse and the foregoing story
demonstrate, plants and the heavens are capable of obeying
commands from Hashem and from tzaddikim, and they are capable of
altering their behavior accordingly. We also know that every
plant and animal possesses basic "knowledge" about itself [its
genetic code] that enables it to grow and even to respond to
various stimuli. While plants, animals and the heavens obviously
do not sing in any language that we can understand, is it far-
fetched to believe that they possess "knowledge" of their
Creator, and that they "praise" Him for His deeds?
(Be'ur Ha'Mabit Le''Perek Shirah)
[Ed. note: Yet a third possible way to understand the "songs"
of the plants and animals is that these creations inspire us to
reflect upon the ideas expressed in each song or verse listed in
In this parasha, the Torah refers to Eretz Yisrael as "the land
in which you will not lack anything." The Gemara in Berachot
(36b) states that this is because the Land itself lacks nothing.
R' Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Kook z"l writes: The ultimate level
that one should attain in Eretz Yisrael is that not only will
material wealth and luxuries not injure his spiritual standing,
they (i.e., wealth and luxuries) will strengthen one's service of
G-d. Therefore, the Land contains a sample of everything, even
that which, by nature, should only grow at the end of the earth.
Similarly, R' Kook continues, all of the world's wisdoms also
must be present in Eretz Yisrael, even those which should belong
to the nations of the world. This is why the Midrash (Eichah
Rabati) calls Eretz Yisrael, "The land which is many in wisdoms."
From our Archives:
Igeret Ha'Ramban / Nachmanides' Letter is an example of the
class of writings that has become an important part of our Mussar
/ ethical "library." The works in question are the "farewell
letters" and "ethical wills" of our sages.
R' Moshe ben Nachman z"l (Ramban; 1194-1270) sent this letter
in 1269 from Akko (Acre), Israel to his son, Nachman, in
Catalina, Spain. In this brief epistle, Ramban exhorts his son
to pursue spiritual greatness and, particularly, to act with
humility. Ramban promises his son that adherence to the
instructions of the letter will ensure that his prayers will be
answered. As the letter's commentators note, this result will
not be miraculous or supernatural. It is simply Hashem's design
for the world that the prayers of the righteous are answered.
Many commentaries have been written on this work. These
include the works of R' Yechezkel Sarna z"l (Rosh Yeshiva of
Yeshivat Chevron; died 1965) in Hebrew, and the English
translation and the exposition by R' Avrohom Chaim Feuer shlita
(A Letter for the Ages, Artscroll, 1989).
Probably the second most famous letter-turned-Mussar classic
(after Ramban's letter) is the Igeret Ha'G.R.A. The G.R.A.
(acronym for "Gaon Rabbi Eliyahu", also known as the Vilna Gaon
z"l; 1720-1797), wrote this letter to his wife and mother as he
set out on a visit to Israel. (At the time, such a trip took many
months or even years. In fact, the Vilna Gaon never reached his
R' Yechezkel Sarna notes three major points in the letter of
the G.R.A. First, the obligation and need to study Mussar is not
fulfilled by a quick, cursory reading of the text. The Vilna
Gaon compares such behavior to sowing without plowing; the seeds
that are sown will quickly blow away in the wind. So too, any
lessons that might be gleaned from reading a Mussar text will
soon be lost unless one reviews constantly, letting each word
impress him. (R' Eliyahu recommends that one's primary Mussar
texts be the books of Mishlei (Proverbs) and Kohelet
(Ecclesiastes), as well as the Pirkei Avot.)
Second, it is not enough to study Mussar in an academic
setting. One must understand how the Yetzer Hara / evil
inclination exploits real-life situations, and must learn to deal
Finally, the Vilna Gaon writes that one should not pursue every
bodily luxury that his body craves.