Picking up on the first word of the Parsha “Eikev” which literally means “the heel of the foot,” Moshe teaches the Jews not to trample on commandments they assume to be less important than others. One day they might find their assumptions were wrong and G-d had completely different criteria for judging the relative importance of each of the commandments. In fact, according to Midrash Tanchuma, the only 2 commandments whose relative importance are known to us are two for which the Torah promises that those who keep them will merit long life:
“Rabbi Simeon ben Yochay taught, “For two commandments did the Holy One, Blessed Be He, reveal their reward. These are the lightest of the light and the weightiest of the weighty ones. The lightest of the light ones is sending away (the mother) bird from the nest (before taking the eggs) and there it is written (in Deuteronomy 22:7), ‘and you will prolong your days.’ The most weighty is honoring parents, about which it is also written (in Deuteronomy 5:16 & Exodus. 20:12), ‘so that you will lengthen your days.”
One could look at this Midrash as an insightful observation of the parent-child relationship, which is certainly the most complex, psychologically impactful and potentially challenging dynamic there is.
It is also no accident that, as you can see from these examples, Isaiah (1:2-3) and Proverbs (3:1), the Torah often compares our relationship to G-d to a parent-child relationship.
Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth, For the Lord has spoken: “I reared children and brought them up— And they have rebelled against Me! An ox knows its owner, And donkey its master’s trough: Israel does not know, my people do not even contemplate it.
My children, do not forget my Torah, and let my teaching remain in your heart. (Proverbs 3:1)
Perhaps Moshe was imploring the Jewish People to have gratitude to G-d as one should have to a parent. G-d took us out of bondage from a powerful country that dominated the world and G-d nurtured and protected us in a desert for 40 years. Not to mention that through episodes like the Golden Calf and the Ten Spies, the Jews should have learned a simple lesson by now – we have entered into a covenantal relationship with God. This means that, going forward, there will always be consequences for our actions. Both positive and negative.
Finish what you started
The Midrash amplifies this theme by showing how much damage can be done when you don’t consider how your deeds may impact the future. This is dramatically portrayed in Judah’s role in selling Joseph into slavery.
Judah saved Joseph’s life by convincing his brothers to sell Joseph instead of killing him in cold blood. According to Midrash Tanchuma, Judah was therefore obligated to finish what he started. The brothers looked up to Judah. He could have prevented a harrowing, unknown fate of selling a handsome,17 year old boy into slavery. Since Judah didn’t consider the consequences of his actions, his wife and two children were destined to die.
“Rabbi Yannai said, “Anyone who begins a commandment but does not finish it will bury his wife and two of his sons.” Where do we you learn this from? From Judah, as it says (Genesis 37:26), “And Yehudah said to his brothers, “What do we gain (betsa) by killing our brother and covering up his blood?” They sat to prepare bread (and eat their meal). He (Yehudah) said to them, “We are going to kill our brother and then recite a blessing (over the bread)?” As it is stated (Psalms 10:3), “the one that loots (botsea) and blesses reviles the Lord.” Hence is it written, “What gain, (betsa) etc.” “Come, let us sell him to the Yishmaelites” (Genesis 37:27). And they (the brothers) listened to him, as he was a king. And had he said to them to bring him back to his father, they would have listened to him.”
The Midrash goes beyond an ordinary occurrence of not finishing a commandment that you started. Rather, the Midrash is describing a defining moment in Jewish history. The consequence of Joseph being sold as a slave in Egypt was that Jacob and his children would end up in Egypt as well, and eventually be enslaved there.
Ironically, the Midrash says elsewhere that Judah’s two sons died precisely because they did consider the consequences of their actions. But their sense of judgement proved to be severely flawed. The first brother, Er, didn’t want his wife, Tamar to be pregnant because he didn’t want her to lose her beauty. So he opted to ‘spill his seed’. After he was punished with death, the second brother, Onan, married Tamar according to the law of a Levirate marriage*. He too ‘spilled his seed’ because he was afraid that their child would be a reincarnation of his older brother. He suffers the same fate as his brother.
(*The Torah obligated the brother of a deceased man to marry his brother’s widow or conduct a special ceremony to free him from his obligation).
In smashing the tablets did Moshe consider the consequences of his action?
Midrash Tanchuma brings the ultimate example of considering the outcome of what you do. After all, the entire Book of Deuteronomy is Moshe’s last opportunity to inspire the Jewish People to weigh the consequences of their deeds. To make sure not to stray from the right path.
When Moshe broke the first tablets containing the Ten Commandments, did he realize that he radically changed the course of Jewish History? According to Midrash Tanchuma, the first set of tablets represented an idyllic existence that couldn’t be achieved.
“God’s writing, engraved (In Hebrew, “Charut)” upon the tablets, (“Charut”is similar to the Hebrew word “Cherut” which means freedom). Freedom from the angel of death. Rabbi Nechemiah says, ‘Freedom from the exiles.’ And Rav said, ‘Freedom from the afflictions’, ..” (Exodus 32:16)
It was meant to be.
Due to the sin of the Golden Calf, the Jews demonstrated that they were not on a spiritual level to live in the idyllic reality of the first set of tablets. Midrash Tanchuma brings an unusual source to prove that it wasn’t meant to be. In fact the implication is that, for the Jews in the desert, the entire history of the world (including selling Joseph into slavery) was meant to be:
“There is a time and a season for everything, for every experience under heaven.” (Ecclesiastes.3:1) There was a time for the world to be created; there was a time for the generation of the flood to be destroyed in water. There was a time to go into the ark, and a time to exit from it. And there was a time for Avraham to be created, and so too with all the Forefathers. There was a time that our fathers were to go down to Egypt, and a time for them to exit from there. And there was a time that they were to be subjugated. And there was a time for the tablets to be broken, and there was a time when others would (commit the sin of) the Golden Calf]. Hence,…(Ecclesiastes 3:5), “(There’s) a time for throwing stones … these are the (breaking of the) first tablets; “and a time for gathering stones,” the time to carve out (two new) tablets of stone”…
The new set of tablets represent harmony
Each of the two tablets contain 5 of the Ten Commandments. The first five represent the relationship between Man and G-d and the last five, the relationship between people.
1) I am the Lord your G‑d 2) You shall have no other gods. 3) Do not use G‑d’s name in vain 4) Remember the Shabbat 5) Honor your father and your mother
6) Don’t murder 7) Don’t commit adultery 8) Don’t Steal (Kidnap) 9) Don’t testify falsely 10) Don’t covet
Midrash Tanchuma provides many metaphors to depict the harmonious relationship between the two tablets, such as a bride and groom, heaven and earth and this world and the world to come.
Of course, the blaring question is how can the 10 commandments achieve harmony when one is clearly in the wrong place. Number five, ‘Honor your father and your mother’ should be on the second tablet with the commandments governing the relationship between people.
In answering this question we are able to tie together the entire Midrash Tanchuma.
We started with the idea that honoring your father and mother was the precept that was the “weightiest of the weighty.” The reason it’s so critical is that it serves as the bridge between the laws between G-d and Man and Man and Man. G-d equates the honor due to a parent with the honor due to Him. So “Honor your father and your mother” was put in the perfect place in the tablets to transition and bring harmony between our relationship with G-d and relationships between people.
If we are going to be truly sensitive to the consequences of our actions, we will show gratitude to G-d even after we get into the Land, plant our own crops and feel like we are masters of our own destiny. Our tendency will be to believe that everything we achieved came through our own initiative and hard work. This, of course, is the biggest threat to our faith and any feeling of gratitude to G-d. Which is why our Parsha so poignantly states: (Deuteronomy 8:17-18)
“And you will (mistakenly) believe in your heart that it is with my own power and the might of my own hand that I have attained this wealth. Remember that it is the Lord your God who gives you the power to get wealth, in fulfillment of the covenant that He made an oath with your fathers, and it’s still in effect today.”
If you need a boost of faith, remember the gratitude you have to your parents. That’s the paradigm for the gratitude you must have for G-d – and visa versa.