07/23/2013 03:36 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Learning to Listen (Ekev, Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25)

And if you do hearken to these rules and observe them carefully, Y-H-V-H your God will maintain faithfully for you the covenant that He made on oath with your fathers (7:12).

If, then, you faithfully keep all this Instruction that I command you, loving Y-H-V-H your God, walking in all His ways and cleaving to Him (11:22).

This week's Torah portion (Ekev) opens with the call to listen to God's commandments and closes with an invitation to connect to the Divine by imitating, or "walking in," His ways. But what exactly are we to hear amid the laws? Is Moses just exhorting us to obey, or is there something more at stake? And what does it mean to cleave to God by following in the divine footsteps?

The great medieval interpreter Rashi notes that the opening verse in our "parashah" (portion) contains the uncommon word "ekev" (do). He reads this as a reference to the seemingly trivial commandments ("mitsvot kalot") that often get trampled under our heels (ekev). Thus, the Torah is reminding us to be ever aware of God's commandments even if one may appear less significant at first blush. Moses is reiterating that these divine commands are also important.

The great 19th-century Hasidic master, the Sefat Emet (d.1905), adds another layer to Rashi's interpretation. In his eyes, Moses employs the word ekev in order to teach us that God is equally present in all places and situations, no matter how mundane it may seem. Sometimes this divine "light" may appear to be hidden or covered over in the darkened corners of our world. But we must learn to attune ourselves in order to find the inner Presence within all. This is what the Torah means when it tells us to "hearken" -- listen for the voice of God in all that we experience.

But this act of listening is not merely passive observation. It is through our intentional performance of the "mitsvot" that we draw forth the divine light. Following earlier Jewish commentators, the Sefat Emet explains that the word "mitzvah" (commandment) is related to the Aramaic word "tsavta" (connection). Performing the mitsvot, and indeed all of our spiritual service, with proper focus helps to bring about a state of greater unity and wholeness in the world.

The word ekev thus summons us to be mindful of God's presence even in the most ordinary aspects of our lives. The final verse of the parashah gives us advice regarding how to express this existential posture in concrete terms: Walk in God's ways, and you will surely cleave to the Divine. Our ancient sages interpret this to mean that just as God is compassionate, so too must we be compassionate; just as God visits the sick, so too must we visit the sick (see, for example, Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 14a); and so it is with all the other acts of kindness, concern and solidarity.

But the Maggid of Mezritch (d. 1772), one of the pioneering figures of the Hasidic movement, reads the sages in an even more challenging way: that God is compassionate through our acts of compassion. In other words, we are agents of divine kindness in this world; through our sacred actions we make manifest God's compassion.

I was deeply troubled to see the recent reports of heartbreaking pollution, both environmental and societal, taking place in South Asia. Entire villages and towns live in the brackish shadow of factories producing clothes that are then shipped thousands of miles away to Europe and the United States. Before reading these articles, I didn't fully realize the connection between my clothing choices and the suffering of other human beings and the degradation of the Earth.

The question is, now that I have become aware of this injustice, what comes next?

Part of me wants to run from it. What can I do to be of help? After all, I live thousands of miles away, in Israel, and I am a person of limited power and influence. But the "heel" metaphor in our opening verse reminds me that I cannot ignore this issue now that I am aware of it. We share a single planet and we are connected to our fellow human beings and to all other forms of life. This bond carries with it great responsibility. Not only is it the case that the pollution emanating from Southeast Asia affects us all, but the pain of the suffering people in that region is a violent attack on the entire body of humanity.

And so, following the teachings of the Sefat Emet and the Maggid of Mezritch, I am beginning to take intentional action. Buying locally and sustainably produced goods from companies that pay fair wages is one important step. So is purchasing things in secondhand stores and clothing swaps, which is an even lower-cost option with the added benefit of reducing our appalling consumer waste.

Still, I know that these actions alone are not enough. There are much deeper and widespread elements of injustice at play here that require systemic change. As I learn more about this issue, I will have to think carefully about how I can contribute to it further, given my particular strengths and limitations, and my other justice commitments.

The Torah demands that we listen, learn and take action. While none of us can attend to all of the great issues of our time, or even to several of them with the same focus and intensity, we cannot let this stop us from working for change.

How does God bestow compassion? Through the benevolent works of those who carry out acts of kindness and mercy. How does God uplift the fallen? Through the bravery of those who lift up others. To walk in God's ways does not mean that we can achieve divine perfection, but it does mean that we strive together to create a world of greater light and justice.

ON Scripture -- The Torah is a weekly Jewish scriptural commentary, produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks and Hebrew College. Thought leaders from the United States and beyond offer their insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.