The Torah of Son House


Rabbi Neil A. Tow

This week’s Torah portion is Ekev, Deuteronomy 7:12 – 11:25.

“I woke up this morning, feeling ‘round for my shoes / Know about that, I got the walkin’ blues…

The blues is a musical genre that reflects the spirit of lament from our recent observance of Tishah B’Av. In this particular song, written by Son House in 1930, a person who wakes up with the heaviness of morning inertia realizes there is no time to dawdle. It is time to start moving.

Similarly for us, we now start counting seven weeks until Rosh Hashanah. As Rabbi Alan Lew explains, “I always feel that the High Holidays start at Tisha B’Av.” We begin our spiritual preparations for the new year by putting on our metaphorical shoes and taking a step forward.

Ekev reminds us of this step-by-step journey in the name of the portion itself. It caught our ancestors’ ears — Ekev, in a phrase translated as “if you do…”, is from the same root word as “heel” that inspired the name of Ya’akov, Jacob, the one who grabs brother Esau’s heel.

What does the word Ekev, relating to the heel or foot, have to do with hearing, internalizing, then following God’s instruction and doing mitzvot?

Rabbenu Bahya suggests three explanations for the choice of the word Ekev here. First, the earthly rewards for doing mitzvot are “lower,” more insignificant than the rewards in the world to come, just as our feet are the lowest part of our bodies.

Next, there are mitzvot we “trample over,” that we tend to disregard, and Ekev reminds us to be as mindful of those as we are with others.

Finally, Ekev suggests there are mitzvot that require us to “walk toward them,” that we literally have to choose to go and participate in, them such as visiting the sick or attending a funeral. These mitzvot do not come to us; rather, we have to be proactive to do them.

The third explanation hits home as we look toward Rosh Hashanah and the season of teshuvah, repentance and reconciliation between us and God. Many of us likely feel like the person in the blues song as our synagogues, schools and organizations gear up for the high holidays/Yamim Nora’im. The dreamy summer days are at their peak, school is out and the bustle of the month of Tishrei feels a world away.

If we can overcome this natural inertia, we can begin a journey of increased self-awareness, tending to our middot (character building) and we can review the past year. We can open up and re-familiarize ourselves with the machzor, the high holiday prayerbook, and read Maimonides’ essay on teshuvah. We can be silent, explore the sources of stress in our lives and be fully present to ourselves and the important people in our lives.

Our ancestors suggested as much when they taught it’s even more important to do teshuvah between Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah than between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Then, hopefully by the time we’re setting tables with apples and honey, we’ll be so full of energy and spirit we’ll not only walk but dance into the new year. ■

Rabbi Neil A. Tow is rabbi of Congregation Sha’are Shalom in Leesburg.

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