I get why God cares about all the big things – what about all those details

It is not uncommon to hear a question like: ‘I get why God cares about all the big things – don’t kill, don’t steal etc. but what about all those details? Would God really care about whether we mix meat and milk? Whether we switch on a light on Shabbat?

One of the best places to explore the Torah’s own answer to that question is this week’s Torah reading - the Sidra of Ekev.

Before going further it may be valuable to note that the premise of the question is actually flawed. If we are thinking about what God ought to care about, we could respond with an even better question: Why do you ‘get why God cares about all the big things…’? These may be ‘big’ to you, but they are not big when measured on a cosmic scale!’

If, as the questioner assumes, God only worries about ‘big things’, then why should the Infinite Creator of the entire universe care about what some miniscule organisms do to one another on a lonely planet that is a microscopic part of the vast universe out there?

What often lies beneath such questions is a subconscious assumption: God should be like us. We care about not killing and not stealing. These things are every day concerns of human beings. We do not care about lights on Shabbat, and detailed mitzvot that we would never have invented had the Torah not said so.

Important though that insight is, it does not yet answer the question in full. For that we need to turn to this week’s Sidra and the enigmatic word for which it is named, ‘Ekev’, which we will analyse and explore shortly.

The context of the Sidra, indeed of all of the book of Devorim (Deuteronomy) is the great speeches that Moshe delivered to Israel in his final weeks on earth. The people were about to enter the land, tasked with establishing a nation where God and His Law would be sovereign. No other nation had ever set up anything similar, and none would even attempt to think in such terms until the 17th century.[1]

The first weekly reading, Devorim itself, focused on the transition that had happened in the people asking for a representative ‘council of elders’ to bring the national leadership closer to them.[2] Moshe explained how such a move had lead to the spies, and the loss of a generation, including himself.[3] But he also set the people up for the fact that the rest of the book would show the people how to do things on this lower level, without him.[4]

The second weekly reading, Va’eschanan, focused on monotheism and the inevitable struggle that would ensue for monotheistic Israel entering deeply pagan Canaan. What might once have been a straightforward matter, involving God’s direct Presence vanquishing any theological opposition, would now involve ideological and geo-political struggle, that could take its toll on Israelite monotheism.

The week’s reading shifts the focus to the imperative to observe the mitzvas. Both this week and last week’s readings are immortalized in the daily readings in every Synagogue of ‘Shema’. The first paragraph, speaking about the Oneness of God and the need to love Him totally, came from last week’s reading.[5] The second paragraph, speaking of the need to translate that love into observance of His instructions is in this week’s.[6] the Talmud explains why we read one before the other, in a way that thematically explains the conceptual structure of the Sidras that contain them:

Why does the paragraph beginning “Shema Yisrael – Listen Israel” come before the paragraph beginning “Vehaya im Shamo’a - It shall be if you listen”? Because one should first accept upon themselves the commitment to Heaven, and only then the commitment to keep Mitzvas.

Mishna, Berachot, 2:2

Indeed, throughout the Sidra, Moshe repeatedly implores the people to follow the Mitzvas.[7] Moreover, the entire Torah and entire ancestral covenant with God is now rephrased, in Ekev, as if it is one big Mitzva!

All the Mitzva that I am instructing you today, guard it well, in order to preserve it, for if you do, then you will live and prosper as you enter and settle the land that I promised to your ancestors.

Devarim 8:1[8]

Yet in the original covenant with Abraham there was no mention of any detail at all. Abraham is told that if he follows God and journeys to the ‘land I will show you’[9] then God will ‘make you a great nation… through you will be blessed all the families of the world.’[10] Later Abraham and Hashem enter into a covenant to make Abraham ‘a father of many nations’,[11] offering ‘an eternal covenant to be for you as a God, and for your descendants who follow you’.[12] God offered the land of Cannaan[13] and Abraham would seal the covenant by intergenerational circumcision.[14] Later we discover that God’s ‘love’ for Abraham[15] is based upon the fact that he will instruct his children after him ‘to guard the way of Hashem, doing charity and justice…’[16] But that sounds like the sort of thing we would consider to be a ‘big thing’. The type of social justice that inspires so many people nowadays. It does not seem that the covenant was ever intended to be based on the ‘small details.’

The clue to understanding the role of those small details is the second word of the Sidra, after which it is names – ‘Ekev’.

It is an enigmatic word that is challenging to translate. Opinions range from the simple conditional, ‘If’,[17] to translations that based on the same Hebrew word ‘Akev’ - ‘heel’![18] One challenge either approach must account for is how frequently the word ‘Ekev’ gets used with reference specifically to the keeping of Mitzvas.[19]

Rashi, drawing on the Midrash[20] relates the word to ‘heel’ and to Mitzvas at the same time:

‘If Ekev you listen to these laws…’ – if you listen to the light Mitzvas that people trample with their heels.

Rashi Devarim 7:12

It sounds like there is an entire category of Miztvas that can be termed ‘light Mitzvas’ that people often do not take seriously. This sounds remarkably like the ‘small details’ that people ask about. But what might be included in such a category? It turns out that there either is no such thing as a ‘light Mitzva’, or if there is, then there is no actual way for us to categorise which are the ‘light ones’ and which are the ‘weighty ones’.

Be as careful with ‘light ones’ as with ‘heavy ones’ for you cannot know the value of the Mitzvas

Mishna, Pirkei Avos (Ethical-Teachings of Our Ancestors) 2:1

The Mishna seems to be self-contradictory. At first it talks about ‘light’ and ‘heavy’ Mitzvas as if there are such objective criteria. But then it tells us that any such categorization is not accessible to us. If so then what the Mishna must mean that we should ‘be careful with Mitzvas we assume to be ‘light ones’ as with the ones that we assume to be ‘heavy ones’.

The problem simply is that we make assumptions about which Miztvas are more or less important based on our own agendas and affiliations. We do so because we are deeply self-centred, and assume that the political, social and ideological concerns that are foremost in our minds, must be foremost in God’s mind too.

As finite and limited human beings we cannot focus on everything. We need to prioritise. So, we distinguish things we consider to be ‘big’, from those we consider ‘small’. If God were to ignore things that are ‘small’ on the cosmic scale, then nothing any human could do would be remotely significant. But as an Infinite Being God can focus on everything. He can care about the entire universe He created and care about all the beings within it. He can care about whether one of those beings kills another, and He can care about what they eat. He can care about every moment, every item and every single detail of creation.[21]

The more we truly care and love something or someone, the more the details start to mater. On a really important meeting or date, every item of clothing, the menu, the décor, the music and so on all start to matter. The more deeply we are aware of Hashem’s love for us, and the more deeply we love Him, the more that will filter into the details.

This, then, is the crux of what Moshe is teaching us this week. There are two polar opposites. At one end stands self-centred man. [22] They may be secular or religious, apathetic or ideological, but it is always their own vision of things that defines their relationship with the world, and their relationship (if they have one) with God. Being religious does not necessarily free a person from self-centredness. Sometimes it allows one to project their own values and priorities onto God, giving them Divine sanction, in effect for such a person, God and His Will are in service of their own personal agenda. For such a person there will be ‘weighty Mitzvas’ – those that express their own tribal affiliations and ideological attitudes – and ‘light Mitzvas’ – those that do not.

The other alternative is the one that Moshe is asking from us this week. It is one in which our relationship with God finds itself in love.[23] It is one where everything that can express God’s Will and love for His creation, becomes a priority for us. To such a person there simply are no ‘small Mitzvas’.

So it turns out that the great lover of God, Avraham,[24] indeed is the role model for the teachings of Ekev – that every detail counts.

One who labors out of love will strive in Torah and its Mitzvas… not for anything in the world, not out of fear of evil and not to gain any good.… This is the level of Avraham, whom the Holy One called “My lover” because he served only out of love….

Rambam, Mishne Torah, Laws of Teshuva, 10:2[25]

[1] One the radical nature of the Israelite polity, see Rabbi Dr. Joshua Berman’s ‘Created Equal: How the Bible broke with Ancient Political Thought’. For its impact on 17th century political thought, see Dr. Eric Nelson’s, ‘The Hebrew Republic’.

[2] Devorim 1:11-18 see Rashi 1:14 sv. Vata’anu

[3] Ibid. 1:22-40

[4] See the essay I wrote on Devorim, ‘The Second Pathway’

[5] Devorim 6:4-9

[6] Ibid. 11:13-21

[7] See eg. 8:1, 10:13, 11:1, 11:13

[8] The theme is repeated throughout the Sidra – see eg. 11:8 and again at the end of the Sidra 11:22

[9] Bereishis 12:1

[10] ibid. 12:3

[11] ibid. 17:4

[12] ibid. 17:7                                                                                                                  

[13] Ibid. 17:8

[14] Ibid. 17:10-14

[15] Ibid. 18:19 see Rashi

[16] Ibid. 18:19

[17] See Onkelos Devarim 7:12. one difficulty with this translation is why the Torah did not use the more frequent word for ‘if’ - ‘im’ like it does later on in the reading (11:13).

[18] See eg. Ramban 7:12 who sees it as the ‘completion’ of a covenant, whose beginning would be metaphorically referred to as a ‘head’ and whose completion would be ‘the heel’.

[19] See eg. Tehillim (Psalms) 19:12, 119:33, 119:112. In each case, as with our Sidra, it could be related to consequences. But it seems that it is a term reserved for consequences that are to do with Miztvas.

[20] Midrash Tanchuma, Ekev 1

[21] I deliberately use the word ‘can’ to avoid entering the complex question of how far God’s hashgacha (supervision or active interaction) actually operates. The precise boundaries are subject to extensive debate amongst the greatest Torah authorities across the centuries.

[22] The root of self-centredness in Torah, is the sin of Adam in the Garden of Eden. See eg. The Rambam’s Guide for the Perplexed 1:2. The result of the sin is that God tells the serpent something that takes on a whole different meaning in light of our Sidra: ‘[Man] shall have power over the head, but you will have power over the heel (Akev).’ (Bereishis 3:15). Though it is beyond the scope of this essay, much Rabbinic commentary points out that the revelation at Sinai ‘removed the poison of the serpent’ (Talmud Shabbos 146a).  We declared ‘we will do and we will listen’ (Shemos 24:7) ready to accept all of the Mitzvas, without prejudging them through our own lenses and agendas. That achievement was destroyed through the Golden Calf worship (Talmud ibid.) which allowed for the re-entry of the serpent’s poison back into our heels, so to speak. It put ourselves back at the centre and made our service of God conditional on our agenda. The rest of history is lived in the shadow of that sin. This is why it makes sense that Moshe focuses on the Godlen Calf episode in Ekev (9:11-29) rather than when discussion idolatry in last week’s reading.

[23] Loving Hashem was introduced in last week’s reading, 6:5, and is reiterated this week in 10:12 and 11:13.Even punishments are ‘like a father who has to punish their child’ (8:5). Moshe also focuses on God’s love for us, eg. In 10:15

[24] Yeshiaiah 41:8

[25] Fascinatingly when God reaffirms that the covenant will be fulfilled through Yitzchak, the words He uses are: ‘through you shall be blessed all the families of the earth Ekev  that you listened to my voice.’ (Bereishis 22:18)

- August 6th 2020

About the Author

Rabbi Daniel Rowe Rabbi Daniel Rowe is the Executive Director of Aish UK. He holds a BA in Philosophy from University College London and an MPhil in Philosophy from Birkbeck College. He studied for a decade in Israel in various Talmudic institutes and is considered one of the most dynamic Jewish speakers in the UK, teaching in campuses, communities and schools across the country. Rabbi Rowe is known for his ability to tackle difficult topics and has numerous videos and articles online. In 2016, Rabbi Rowe took part in a live televised debate with a leading atheist, dubbed "The God Debate".  Rabbi Rowe has played an instrumental role in the creation and development of many organisations and initiatives such as the Forum for Jewish Leadership, the Aleinu Conference and Shabbat UK.

More in this series

In Conversation with John Lennox | The Rabbi Rowe Podcast #1

Vayera: Existence, Non-Existence and the Love of Justice

Noach: Is Building an Ark Enough?

The Fourteen Step Journey

Journey through Despair

Exploring Rosh Hashana

What Exactly Gets Weighed on Rosh Hashanah?

Stand Up and Be Counted

Return to Eden

I get why God cares about all the big things – what about all those details

The Long Road Back

Coronavirus - is it insensitive to talk about silver linings?

Pinchas - Rise to the Occasion

Many Tribes, One People

The Story of Ruth (Part Four): To Heal the World

The Story of Ruth (Part Three): Relationships and Surrogates

The Story of Ruth (Part 2) - Beyond Givers and Takers 

The Story of Ruth (Part One): The Problem with Kindness

Lighting the Fire of Hope: A Deeper Look into Lag Ba’Omer

Acharei Mos – Kedoshim: When Law Becomes Marriage

Tazria-Metzora: Isolation and the Reconstruction of Society

Why did God put us in Egypt in the first place?

At Home With the Kids

Haggadah Series Part 1: Four Sons or One? What is the Haggadah trying to achieve?

Coronavirus: A Time to Spread Positivity

A Jewish Perspective on Coronavirus and Isolation

11 Thoughts About Covid-19, Isolation, Anxiety and the Greatness Within

Is Religion Behind Most Wars?

The Haggadah Explained - Video Series

Is There Morality Without a Divine Text?

Heated Politics at the Shabbat Table

The Big Question: Why Didn't God Wait for Cameras?

The Four Children

The Four Verses - The Core Message

The 10 Plagues & The 10 Commandments: Decreation & Recreation

Bitter Herbs - When Luxury Becomes Slavery

Happy Purim from Aish

No Need to Move the Goalposts

Related resources

Responsibility - The Impossible Dream

By- Rabbi Eli Birnbaum

Veyachi: The Power of Positivity

By- Rabbi Dovid Lichtig

I Closed My Eyes….

By- Rabbi Eli Birnbaum

Do Not Disturb

By- Rebbetzin Shalvie Friedman

Vayishlach – Your Money or Your Life?

By- Rabbi Moshe Friedman (Rav Mo)

An Article on Gratitude

By- Rebbetzin Adina Strom

Vayera: Existence, Non-Existence and the Love of Justice

By- Rabbi Daniel Rowe

Four More Years! Make “US” Great Again

By- Rabbi Gideon Goldwater

Noach: Is Building an Ark Enough?

By- Rabbi Daniel Rowe

Are YOU relevant in a post-COVID world?

By- Steve Herz

Spirituality in the Postmodern World

By- Rabbi Dovid Lichtig

A Vision of Leadership

By- Shira Druion

The Fourteen Step Journey

By- Rabbi Daniel Rowe

Winners and Losers of the Israel-UAE Peace Agreement

By- Aish UK

Journey through Despair

By- Rabbi Daniel Rowe

An Exclusive Interview with Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

By- Rabbi Ari Kayser

The Sound of Music

By- Rabbi Ari Kayser

Trial by Twitter

By- Rabbi Eli Birnbaum

Exploring Rosh Hashana

By- Rabbi Daniel Rowe

What Exactly Gets Weighed on Rosh Hashanah?

By- Rabbi Daniel Rowe

Copyright © Aish UK