I still remember a conversation I had about 25 years ago, when I was studying at a yeshiva (Jewish seminary) in Israel. One of my teachers, an American who had served in the Israel Defense Forces, told me the following story. A few months into his training, his platoon was sent on its most difficult hike in basic training. At 3:00 am, one of the officers woke everyone up, with no warning, and told them to get their gear on and get ready to hike. And so began the longest and most exhausting day of his life – a punishing all day hike, up and down hills, while carrying their heavy guns and gear in the intense heat. He explained that this was the moment during basic training when you are pushed to the limits of your physical ability; the last bunch of miles, you’re running on fumes.
Finally, the day and the hike were over; with tremendous relief, the soldiers stumbled into their tents and sleeping bags, ready to pass out for the night. Like everyone else, my teacher quickly changed into shorts and crawled into his sleeping bag; he was never more relieved to go to sleep! His eyes immediately started close, but then, just as he was about to pass out, a thought burst into his mind, like lightning. “I forgot to say the evening prayers!”
Traditional Jews pray three times a day, in the morning, afternoon and evening. At that moment, my teacher said that he experienced one of the greatest internal struggles of his life. Every part of his body screamed “God will understand – it’s ok – go to sleep!” But at the same time, a voice inside of him said: “Get up and pray!” Slowly, slowly, he pulled himself out of his sleeping bag, half asleep, and proceeded to pray the fastest, least inspirational prayer of his life, in 4 minutes flat – and then immediately passed out on top of his sleeping bag. He fell asleep before he could crawl in!
This, my teacher said, was the moment of his IDF service that stood out, more than any other – a moment he’ll carry with him for the rest of his life!
This week, Jews around the world will read the following verses:
“And it will be, if you will heed these ordinances and keep them and perform, that the Lord, your God, will keep for you the covenant and the kindness that He swore to your forefathers, and He will love you, and bless you, and multiply you…” (Deuteronomy 7:12-13)
In English translation, this verse is straightforward: follow God’s commandments, and God will bless you. But the wording of the verse in the original Hebrew, is actually quite strange. The verse begins: “וְהָיָה עֵקֶב תִּשְׁמְעוּן” (v’-ha-YAH AY-kev tish-m’-UN). The word עֵקֶב, which is translated as ‘if’, literally means ‘heel.’ Understood literally, this verse means “And it will be, if you will heed these commandments of the heel…”
“Commandments of the heel”? What do God’s commandments have to do with the heel – the back of our feet? And why are these “commandments of the heel” so essential to receiving God’s blessing?
The heel normally gets very little of our attention, for an important reason – it is one of the toughest and least sensitive parts of our bodies. When you want to break something that’s very hard, you don’t punch it with your hand – you might break your fingers! And it’s never a good idea to kick something heavy with your toes – you’ll break your toe (I know, unfortunately, from experience). The best way to break something is by stomping on it with your heel. The heel is surrounded by callouses that prevent feeling; there are many people who walk all over the world on their heels, barefoot. This is possible because the outer layers of skin on our heels is dead, providing an important buffer to protect our feet.
And so the heel, in Jewish thought, represents a lack of feeling and sensitivity. Though the heel is obviously technically alive, it represents a form of “living lifelessness” – a way of living one’s life without energy and passion.
Normally, God-fearing people strive to serve God with passion and excitement. We want to do more than go through the motions of religiosity. And this is certainly the ideal way to serve God. But at the end of the day, what will define us, more than anything, is our ability to serve God with our heels – when we are under stress, when we feel tired and uninspired, when there is no part of us that feels like doing God’s will. If we are able to drag ourselves out of bed to pray, even when we are deeply exhausted; if we can lend a helping hand to others, even when we are annoyed about it, then we will have succeeded in dedicating ourselves to God in the most powerful way possible – with our heels!