I don't usually watch a lot of TV, but this summer I find myself glued to the Tour de France bike race and the Olympics. Watching bikers and sprinters and pole jumpers move through the air at the speed of light, I can sometimes feel a little pathetic as I sit stationary on my couch. However, Ekev, our portion this week, makes a compelling argument — not for staying still, but for taking the slow way around at a slower pace.
The Hebrew verb "holek," which is translated as "to go" or "to walk," is used at least four times in this portion. It first appears in reference to the journey of the Israelites: "Remember the long way that the Lord your God made you travel in the wilderness these past 40 years. … The clothes upon you did not wear out, nor did your feet swell." The phrase "made you travel" is literally "made you walk." Perhaps the slow pace of the journey allowed the people to traverse that time and distance without wearing out their clothes or swelling their feet. They arrived at the Jordan ready to begin the next step rather than exhausted from the journey.
The next appearance of the verb "to walk" comes soon after: "Therefore keep the commandments of the Lord your God: walk in His ways and revere Him."
It is no accident that the word we use in Judaism to refer to the whole body of commandments and laws that govern our way of life, halachah, is also derived from the same root as the word to walk. Halachah can literally mean "walking" or "path." This shared word root reminds us that when we follow God's commandments we are living in the mode of walking. The commandments slow us down, they cause us to think before we act. They ask us to look at our food and decide which blessing we need, to look at our fellow humans and decide how to act toward them, to remember to be conscious of God's presence in all that we do.
The Medieval Torah commentator Rashi observes a connection between following the commandments and going at a slow pace. The name of the portion, ekev, means heel, and in the Torah it connotes heeding or following after something –in this case, the rules that God has given the people.
Rashi connects the use of the word "ekev" to the injunction to "heed the minor commandments that one [usually] tramples with ones heels." This trampling is an example of what happens when someone runs rather than walks. Walking, taking the slow way around, we are more mindful of the affect we have on others. When we go slowly, we observe more, we notice more, we appreciate more — and that is how we understand that we are interconnected.
Walking makes you humble. This portion reminds us repeatedly that humility is essential for living in and partaking of the land. "It is not for any virtue of yours that the Lord your God is giving you this good land to possess; you are a stiffnecked people."
The content of the rest of the portion — in fact, most of Deuteronomy — is designed to slow us down. It is a review of all that has happened on the journey from Egypt to the Land. After 40 years the people finally arrive at the Jordan, and rather than rushing into their goal of so many years, Moses says: Stop. Slow down. Let's take some time to reflect on what we've just been through.
This is the mode of walking. While we may spend the summer admiring speed, let us remember that slowing down to a walk is the real way to win the gold.
Rabbi Danielle Stillman is a Reconstructionist rabbi and the Hillel adviser at Ursinus College. Email her at: [email protected]