21 Av, 5775
Many years ago, when I was in college, I was over at the Chabad house for Shabbos. The rebbetzin and I were talking about food and health, when suddenly she jumped up and said she needed to show me a new product she was using. She returned with a bottle of some kind of juice.
“Do you know what this is?” she asked eagerly.
I recognized the bottle from my father’s house, because my father always had the latest health products. It was a bottle of “noni juice”, which was purported to have amazing health properties. But, there was something funny about the label on the bottle.
On the noni juice labels I had seen in the past, there was a picture of a muscular, shirtless Hawaiian man chugging a big glass of noni juice. On this bottle that the rebbetzen had in her hand, the picture was almost exactly the same- except that the man had a colorful Hawaiian shirt on!
“Wait a minute! Why does that guy have a shirt on?” I asked.
“Oh,” she replied, “it’s because we requested that the company change the picture to a guy with a shirt, so that it would be permitted for us to buy it. It would be forbidden for us to by any product with the shirtless man on the label.”
“But what’s wrong with a having no shirt?” I asked.
“The point of spirituality is to make you more sensitive," she replied. "A lot of secular culture is extremely stimulating, having a desensitizing effect. By keeping bodies covered, we enhance our sensitivity to the sacredness of the human form.”
You may or may not agree with the Chabad standards of tzniyut (modesty), but her underlying point is true: The more you get, the less sensitive you tend to be to what you already have… hence the tendency to always want MORE.
This is so obvious with children. We want the best for them. We want to give them everything. And yet, the more we give, the more they want. Giving them more and more doesn’t always satisfy them more; it can create spoilage. So, it turns out, if we want to give them more, we sometimes have to give them less.
This week’s reading begins with the words, “V’hayah eikev tishma’un- It shall be the reward when you listen…”
The sentence is strange, because the word “eikev” really means “heel”, but it’s understood here to mean “reward” or “because” or “consequence”. This meaning is probably related to the English idiom when we say that something “follows on the heels” of another thing. The thing that “follows on the heels” is the consequence.
There’s a “heel” story of Reb Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch (b. 1789):
When he was little boy, his grandfather would teach him Torah. When they came to the verse, “Eikev asher Avraham b’koli- Because (eikev) Abraham listened to my voice…”, his grandfather asked him to explain it.
The child said, “Abraham heard God’s Voice even with his eikev- his heel!”
The grandfather, Reb Shneur Zalman, was ecstatic with the boy's answer and responded, “In fact we find this same idea in another verse- “V’hayah eikev tishma’un- It will be the reward if you listen...’ This verse tells us we should strive to become so sensitive that even our eikev- our heel- should ‘listen’, meaning that we should sense the holiness that permeates all creation even with the most insensitive part of our bodies.”
How do you do that?
Be your own parent- restrict yourself.
The most astonishing and incredible thing I think I’ve ever seen was on television, several days after a huge earthquake hit Haiti. A man was searching day and night for his wife who was buried somewhere under a collapsed building. After something like five days, a voice was heard from beneath the rubble. Men dug furiously toward the voice. Soon they pulled out this man’s wife. She had been buried, no space to move, no food or water for many days.
What did she do? She sang hymns!
As they pulled her out, she was moving and singing. She was clapping her hands, crying “Halleluyah!”
I couldn’t believe it. Incomprehensible. But there it was: She was singing in gratitude for her life, for the sunlight, for being able to move. That’s sensitivity.
This is the whole point of all of those traditional spiritual practices that restrict you in some way, such as fasting. Their message is: don’t keep going in the direction of “more”. Go in the direction of less, even if just for a small period of time. This is the potential gift of suffering.
This idea is expressed a little later in the parsha, Devarim (Deuteronomy) 8:3-
“You were afflicted and hungered… so that you would know- ki lo al halekhem levado yikhyeh ha’adam- not by bread alone does a person live, but by everything that comes out of the Divine mouth does a person live!”
In other words, to truly live, you have to feel your most basic needs. You have to hunger a little. Otherwise, you won’t appreciate your life and sustenance as a gift, as coming from the “Divine mouth”.
And, while fasting and other traditional restrictions can be useful aids, you can actually practice this in a small but powerful way every time you are about to eat:
Rather than just digging in, take a moment. Delay the first bite. Appreciate. Say a brakha (blessing)- either the traditional one or something in your own words. But don't just rush through the blessing while the food is on its way to your mouth! Acknowledge the Divine mouth. Feel the hunger.
When you are finished, don’t just get up and go. Take a moment.
As it says only a few verses later (8:10), “Ve’akhalta, v’savata, uveirakhta- and you shall eat, and you shall be satisfied, and you shall bless…”
On this Shabbat of the Heel, let's not hurry through the present moment to get to the next thing. There is only one life to enjoy- and that’s the one we are living. Enjoy it down to your heels on the earth!