Moshe makes a point of telling the gathered people not to overlook things they aren’t keen on:

וְהָיָה עֵקֶב תִּשְׁמְעוּן, אֵת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים הָאֵלֶּה, וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם וַעֲשִׂיתֶם, אֹתָם-וְשָׁמַר ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לְךָ, אֶת-הַבְּרִית וְאֶת-הַחֶסֶד, אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע, לַאֲבֹתֶיךָ – When you finally listen (עֵקֶב) to the laws, observe and perform them; Hashem will safeguard you, and uphold the covenant sworn to your fathers. (7:12)

עֵקֶב is the word for “heel”; it denotes some definition of stepping. Keep the mitzvos that are neglected, and God safeguards you.

R’ Shlomo Farhi observes that the conclusion of that section evokes nearly identical imagery:

כָּל הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר תִּדְרֹךְ כַּף רַגְלְכֶם בּוֹ לָכֶם יִהְיֶה מִן הַמִּדְבָּר וְהַלְּבָנוֹן מִן הַנָּהָר נְהַר פְּרָת וְעַד הַיָּם הָאַחֲרוֹן יִהְיֶה גְּבֻלְכֶם. לֹא יִתְיַצֵּב אִישׁ בִּפְנֵיכֶם פַּחְדְּכֶם וּמוֹרַאֲכֶם יִתֵּן | יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם עַל פְּנֵי כָל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר תִּדְרְכוּ בָהּ כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר לָכֶם – Every place the soles of your feet tread will be yours… No man will rise up before you; the Lord will cast fear of you and the dread of you on the land upon which you tread… (11:24,25)

The conquest of Israel is through תִּדְרֹךְ כַּף רַגְלְכֶם. But that is not actually a method of acquisition at all. R’ Farhi teaches that the meaning here mirrors that of earlier. The beginning and end of the parsha denote the entirety of a journey – by understanding the true sanctity of what is “stepped on” – you become someone who treads carefully, and grows and acquires through his steps.

However – this is only true if we internalise the lesson of וְהָיָה עֵקֶב תִּשְׁמְעוּן. What if we don’t get it?

The very next sentence, the opening of the next section, addresses this:

רְאֵה אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם הַיּוֹם בְּרָכָה וּקְלָלָֽה – See how I place before you a blessing and a curse… (11:26)

רְאֵה – “Look; see! I need you to get this!”

The definition of the curse is not having the crystal clarity of the lesson. It would be impossible to sin, the way you don’t put your hand in a fire. It’s about perception; like associating a cigarette as death.

Through not following everyone else’s footsteps you blaze a trail of your own.

One of the sections of Moshe’s farewell speech opens with a reiteration on how important it is that people put in real effort:

וְהָיָה עֵקֶב תִּשְׁמְעוּן, אֵת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים הָאֵלֶּה, וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם וַעֲשִׂיתֶם, אֹתָם-וְשָׁמַר ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לְךָ, אֶת-הַבְּרִית וְאֶת-הַחֶסֶד, אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע, לַאֲבֹתֶיךָ – When you will listen to the laws, observe and perform them; Hashem will safeguard you, and uphold the covenant sworn to your fathers. (7:12)

The Alshich points out the peculiarity of the word עֵקֶב – it is very infrequently found. In addition to which, it doesn’t even seem to change the basic message in the context – were it not to say עֵקֶב, the meaning would remain the same – it hasn’t even been translated above, for this reason.

It seems to be a conditional term, but this raises an issue – in Judaism, we do not perform our duties like workers with the expectation of reward at the end. We are meant to dedicate ourselves regardless. So what is the implication of the conditional incentive clearly stated?

R’ Shlomo Ganzfried explains that the reward is not actually for the net result of the action performed.

The Gemara in Berachos tells how R’ Zeira took a short break from his learning, left the study hall, and decided to sit on the steps outside; so that if a rabbi walked by, he could stand up out of respect and deference, gaining merit while nonetheless being idle from learning.

This evidently indicates that positive attitude and care are independently valuable characteristics to display and exercise, outside of the set mitzvos and laws.

Similarly, the Torah requires anyone who witnesses an event to not withhold testimony. This also means that a witness can not be paid to testify – they are already obligated. However, if someone is hired to investigate something, and they find evidence or the like, they can be still be paid, not violating the above requirement.

This is because they are not being paid for the testimony or presentation of evidence. The payment is for the work and effort put in.

The same is true of the Torah’s affirmation of the reward, exemplified by the story of R Zeira. There may be no reward for the actual mitzva in this world – but showing respect for the accoutrements of Torah is very different.

This is why it is specifically here that the word עֵקֶב – literally “heel” – appears here. It is not conditional on performance at all; indeed, the Torah must be observed under any and all circumstances.

But the legwork, the walking, the effort, are what matters. That makes all the difference. This is the imagery of עֵקֶב.

In Moshe’s final address to the people, he tells them how each one of them is important:

וְהָיָה עֵקֶב תִּשְׁמְעוּן אֵת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים הָאֵלֶּה וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֹתָם וְשָׁמַר ה’ אֱלֹ-ךָ לְךָ אֶת הַבְּרִית וְאֶת הַחֶסֶד אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע לַאֲבֹתֶיךָ – It will be because you listen to these ordinances, keep and perform them, that the Lord your God will keep for you the covenant and the kindness that He swore to your forefathers. (7:12)

When addressing the audience, Moshe alternates between תִּשְׁמְעוּן, the plural, to לְךָ, the singular. Why?

The Gemara in Shabbos records how a non-Jew approached Shamai and offered to convert if Shamai would teach him the entire Torah, standing on one leg. Interpreting the gentile’s words as mockery, Shamai threw a piece of building rubble at him. The gentile approached Hillel and proposed the same. Hillel said, “Love your neighbor as yourself. The rest is commentary, now go and study.”

What was the premise of the man’s request? Clearly, the request to learn Torah on one leg is absurd, let alone to ask it of the greatest rabbis of the era. Hillel’s response is curious too. How does his answer incorporate mitzvos such as Shabbos, tefilin, tzitzis etc.?

Moreover, it is simply impossible to accomplish all 613 mitzvos, ever; many are mutually exclusive. Some are specific to gender, age, caste eg Kohanim and Levi’im, kings, during the time of the Temple and so on. One cannot possibly hope to do so.

Shamai spurned him with construction material. The imagery alludes to a building that has many sections, rooms and floors. Without multiple components, it’s not a building. In the same vein, the Torah has many levels, and many mitzvos. Without them all, the Jew is incomplete – there is no “Jew” without “the Jews”. Shamai’s response indicates that the Torah cannot be actualised by an individual; it is paradoxically impossible to fulfill each and every mitzva, one must simply recognise their place in the nation.

Hillel proposed that individuals can associate with all mitzvos – a cog in the machine is inseparable from the machine itself. His directive of וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ means that with unity, the rest of the Torah is innately there. The benchmark of unity is כאיש אחד בלב אחד – one man with one heart. A hat belongs to you, not your head. Similarly, if a Jew performs a mitzva, the entire nation tap into it. With a few simple words, Hillel explained to the gentile how to contextualise Torah directives.

Back to Moshe’s speech, he says וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם וַעֲשִׂיתֶם – keep and perform them in the plural form, which is said to the entire nation. But nonetheless, in spite of the inability of being able to actually do them all, וְשָׁמַר ה’ אֱלֹ-ךָ, Hashem will protect you – the individual. That is, each person should keep what they are truly able, and will be rewarded as such.

This explains why it was necessary to be united at Sinai; without unity, there would be no point in receiving a Torah that could not be fulfilled.

R Yitzchak Lande points out that the Torah switches from plural to singular many times, because although there is a communal responsibility, this doesn’t assuage the individual’s duty to pitch in – even if the job is done!

Everyone has to pull their weight – leave apportionment of credit to God.