Before the Jews entered the Land of Israel, Moshe gave a speech to the gathered people. One of the points he made was that just because some things seem less important; it doesn’t mean people should perform them half-heartedly:
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. In other words: when you observe the things that are trodden on, God safeguards you in some way.
Rashi understands the word to be cognate to “kneading”, which lends an additional layer of understanding. Kneading has a constructive purpose, which is to warm and stretch a cold and firm dough. We knead mitzvos when we instrumentalize them for personal gains and ends.
R’ Shlomo Farhi observes that Moshe repeats the imagery of stepping on things once again:
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 | ה 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 before you; the Lord will cast the fear of you and the dread of you on the land upon which you tread… (11:24,25)
This seems to say that the Land of Israel would become theirs by stepping on it. But this cannot be literal – Israel became theirs after a war!
R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches that the meaning here mirrors the figurative sense of treading on essential things. By be being careful what we step on, we measure our steps, and each safeguarded step takes us where we need to go.
But this is only true if we internalize the lesson – וְהָיָה עֵקֶב תִּשְׁמְעוּן.
What if we don’t get it?
Moshe addresses this in his very next sentence:
רְאֵה אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם הַיּוֹם בְּרָכָה וּקְלָלָֽה – Look and see how I place before you a blessing and a curse… (11:26)
Quite literally – רְאֵה – “Look and see! I need you to get this!”
The curse that comes along with not measuring our actions is actions that are not measured! We will inevitably tread on the important things, and our steps will take us nowhere.
With a singular focus of what matters and what doesn’t, we would have such singular focus that it would be impossible to go wrong. We have a crystal clarity that fire burns when you come too close.
If we had the same level of perception of right and wrong; that itself would be our safeguard, and every step would take us forward, and we would not fear a misstep.
Steps can take us forward, backward, sideways, and nowhere. We can step on important things and important people along the way. It is always a good time to be mindful of the direction we are headed, why we’re doing it, and if what we’re doing is the best way to get there.
The speech was long ago, but the message is as true today as it was then. No one else can take the steps for us. We need to blaze trails of our own.
Our moral compasses can only navigate for us when they are switched on.