Heel-dom: gods of comfort and power

10599394_717380508311895_7027393843189443889_n“Every 28 hours across America a black person is killed by security guard, police officer or some other executive of the state,” Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson said on the recent “Face the Nation,” adding that President Obama needs to use his “unique position” to explain the rage emanating from Ferguson, MO:

[Obama needs to explain] to white people whose white privilege in one sense obscures from them what it means that their children can walk home every day and be safe. They’re not fearful of the fact that somebody will kill their child who goes to get some ice tea and some candy from a store.”
— Michael Eric Dyson on August 17 Face the Nation

The Torah portion known as “Eikev [heel]” calls us to consider whether we might be, however inadvertently, tugging on the heel of a brother. And Mishkan T’filah‘s adaptation of words taken from this portion demands that we avoid making “gods of own comfort or power.”

Meanwhile, the Torah portion known as “Eikev [heel]” calls us to consider whether we might be, however inadvertently, tugging on the heel of a brother. And Mishkan T’filah‘s adaptation of words taken from this portion demands that we avoid making “gods of own comfort or power.”

If we turn from Sinai

The portion Eikev (Deuteronomy 7:12 – 11:25) includes verses that make up the second full paragraph of the Shema. These words, Deuteronomy 11:13-21, are included within tefillin as well. This passage, therefore, appears several times in many prayerbooks. But it’s far less prominent in, or missing entirely from, some liberal prayerbooks.It’s easy to see why a passage that speaks of reward and punishment as a direct result of the People’s actions was omitted or diminished in Reform Prayerbooks. (See, e.g., Richard Sarason on the Three Paragraphs of the Shema.) But Mishkan T’filah (URJ, 2007) includes, as an alternative reading, a thematic paraphrase of the Shema’s second paragraph.

The reading — by Richard Levy, a member of the editorial committee for the prayerbook and an author of many contemporary liturgical pieces — can be found on page two of these Mishkan T’filah sample pages:


But if we turn from Sinai’s words
and serve only what is common and profane,
making gods of our own comfort or power,
then the holiness of life will contract for us;
our world will grow inhospitable.

Let us therefore lace these words
into our passion and our intellect,
and bind them as a sign upon our hands and eyes….
— from Mishkan T’filah, p.67 and p.235

Levy’s is one of a number of approaches to this paragraph that take what theologian Judith Plaskow calls “a more naturalistic” view, focusing on the need to avoid thinking that “we can trample on or transcend the constraints of nature.”

The passage also seems to capture what another theologian, Elliott Dorff, calls the insistence that God is ultimately just. He points out that the ancient Rabbis had trouble with the way reward and punishment are described in this portion. Still, he says, they included this passage as a central part of the prayers because of their “deep faith in the ultimate justice of God as the metaphysical backdrop and support for human acts of justice.”

(Both Dorff and Plaskow quotes are from Jewish Lights’ My Jewish Prayerbook, vol 1: The Shema and its Blessings)

I see this idea reflected in the passage which is recited when laying tefillin on the hand (wrapping around the finger three times):

  • I will betroth you to me forever;
  • I will betroth you to me through justice and rule of law, kindness and compassion;
  • I will betroth you to me in trust, and you will know that I am God

— Hosea 2:21-22

“…making gods of comfort or power”

Levy echoes the tefillin image with the great phrase, “lace these words into our passion and our intellect.” He then cautions that we must not “serve only what is common and profane, making gods of our own comfort or power.” And this point, I think, deserves consideration.

To explore this idea, let’s look at the opening of the portion:

וְהָיָה עֵקֶב תִּשְׁמְעוּן
v’haya eikev tishm’un
“And it shall come to pass, because ye hearken to these ordinances,
— from Mechon-Mamre (JPS 1917)

Plaut (URJ — see Source Materials for more on various transalations) adds in a footnote that “eikev” means “on the heel of,” as in, “as a consequence of.”

Robert Alter translates the phrase: “And it shall come about in consequence of your heeding these laws…”

Ever since Rashi, a common midrashic interpretation is that “eikev” references commandments that the People might consider relatively unimportant and so figuratively “tread on them with their heels.” The implication is that, if the People can be convinced to observe even the seemingly unimportant commandments, they’ll be certain that God will reward them. (More on the odd preposition “eikev”.)

A bit later in the portion, Moses breaks off narrating how things will be once the People have crossed the Jordan to warn

…and thou say in thy heart: ‘My power and the might of my hand hath gotten me this wealth.’ But thou shalt remember the LORD thy God, for it is He that giveth thee power to get wealth, that He may establish His covenant which He swore unto thy fathers, as it is this day.
–Deuteronomy 8:17-18

This is a constant theme in this portion, really throughout Deuteronomy: that the People are apt to forget God when things get easy, lose track of whence blessings flow.

Our “heel” nature

Remember that Israel [Yisrael; “God-wrestler”] is also Jacob [Yaakov, same letters as “heel”] (see Gen 33:25-29), and that Jacob was born tugging on the heel of his brother (Gen 25:26), grasping at blessing that wasn’t his own. Maybe our “Israel” nature knows that blessings come from God and behaves with consequent humility, while our “Jacob” nature forgets, takes the credit, becomes ungrateful, and maybe even ignores equity, being all to ready to pull the on heel of a brother to get ahead.

Considering “making gods of our own comfort or power”: Most people attending Jewish worship services — whether we care to admit it most of the time or not — enjoy enormous comfort and power, relative to others in our society, simply because our skin is not dark and/or because we don’t live in neighborhoods declared “sketchy” or “bad.”

Neighborhood labels mean that, from the outside looking in, residents can be assumed to be either up to no good or somehow tolerant of lawlessness. The violence and crime reported from these areas, the poverty and lack of educational options, all that can then be dismissed as somehow par for the course.

…there will be consequences

In Walter Mosley’s 2008 fable, The Tempest Tales, a man named Tempest Landry is “accidentally” shot by police who mistake his reaching into his pocket to adjust his music-player as the threat of an armed robbery suspect. When Landry dies and reaches the “pearly gates,” he refuses to accept the heavenly judgment of his life and describes (post-death) what happened to him:

“…Them shootin’ me wasn’t no accident. You don’t take no scared white boys can’t tell the difference between one black man and another, give ‘em guns, and let ‘em run around the streets of Harlem and then say it was an accident when they one day shoot down an innocent man….I don’t think them cops killed me did it outta spite but it sure wasn’t no accident neither. The accident was me bein’ a black man in the open.”
— Walter Mosley, The Tempest Tales
See also “Declarations of Independence, Peace, etc.”

The second paragraph of the Shema reminds us that everything has consequences. Jews, in particular, know how dangerous it is when a whole group of people is demonized in popular culture. We may not agree on how we got here as a nation, or about how to get out, but I think we must grant that the fictional Landry speaks with an authentic voice and that is resonates today in troubling ways.

Despite advances of the Civil Rights movement — or, perhaps, because of them — black men and boys in this country have been demonized to the point that their lives are in danger, in many ways, all the time. Meanwhile, whole neighborhoods, for generations, in this city [DC] and elsewhere, live in conditions that the more comfortable and more powerful among us would not tolerate for a moment.

The second paragraph of the Shema calls us to question how much power and comfort, however inadvertently, have become gods to us. And the portion’s first verse nudges us to ask: Have we as a country succumbed to “heeldom”? Do we let our Jacob selves grab at blessings that are not rightfully ours and thus leave our brothers calling out, “Is there no blessing for me?!” (Gen 27:36)? Have we disregarded Moses’ warning (see above) and started to believe that it our own strength led to our relative wealth and well-being?

Lace these Words

We learned earlier that Rashi reads the opening verse of Eikev as a call to pay attention to even the commandments most likely to be tread under the heel, insisting that blessing would follow, if we care for those believed least important.

Maybe we should consider the consequences when we allow humans among us to be tread under the heel, considered less important — be it through law, popular culture, or otherwise. And maybe if we pay attention to to even the people most likely to be tread under, our society will be far more blessed as a whole.

If God’s insistence on justice is meant to underpin our own, we’ve got work to do to make that justice more of a reality. And that work will not succeed as long as our collective Jacob selves allow any tugging on the heel of others. For me, this year, this is the lesson of this portion. This is what it’s calling us to “lace… into our passion and intellect.”

A version of this drash was presented at Temple Micah on August 16, 2014.

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