Torah and the Fear of Heaven Lead to the Reward of the World to Come
Resh Lakish reflected upon the verse that states, “If the snake bites because it was not charmed, then there is no advantage to the charmer’s art” (Ecclesiastes 10:11). “In the future,” he said, “all the animals will assemble themselves and go to the serpent and say, ‘The lion rips apart its prey to eat it, the wolf rips apart its prey to eat it, but you – what benefit do you derive from your prey?’ The serpent will reply, ‘What benefit does someone have who speaks evil?’ ” (Erchin 15b). The connection between the serpent and one who speaks ill of others must therefore be understood.
We can understand the relationship between the two in the following way. The serpent is used to biting the heel, as it is written, “[It] bites a horse’s heels so its rider falls backward” (Genesis 49:17). Rashi explains that the serpent makes a tiny bite on the foot without its victim feeling a thing, and then all of a sudden this wound begins to swell up tremendously (Rashi on Exodus 22:24). It happens in exactly the same way regarding slander. At the beginning it is nothing at all (like a person’s heel, which he neither sees nor notices), but in the end it swells up until the entire body suffers. And if the serpent bites precisely on the heel, it is measure for measure (Shabbat 105b), for the mouth that should have studied Torah spoke ill of others instead. The punishment is therefore a bite on the heel ("83) because effort wasn’t put into fixing (3"8) times for Torah study.
It must be understood that gossiping is a very grave sin. Rabbi Ishmael teaches that whoever speaks ill of others commits a sin as great as idolatry, adultery, and murder (Erchin 15b). The passage, “You shall not be a gossipmonger among your people” (Leviticus 19:16) means that if someone speaks ill of others, he should realize that it’s as if he is also speaking ill of himself, since he is included in the term “your people.” In doing so, he harms the unity of the Jewish people because of the power of gossip’s venom. We find this idea alluded to in the very same verse (“You shall not be a gossipmonger [rachil] among your people”), for the word rachil has the same numerical value as the letter yud and the word ner (“lamp”), the letter yud being at the beginning of the word yadlik (“he will light”). This means that he lights a lamp by making slanderous remarks, and this light then penetrates to all holes and crevices, damaging every area it penetrates.
We should be very careful before opening our mouths, because a tiny word barely more important that a person’s heel can bring about devastating results, as it is written, “Evil speech kills three people: The speaker, the subject, and the listener” (Devarim Rabba 5:10). It acts in exactly the same way as the serpent bite that, starting from the heel, puts the entire body at risk.
All this is alluded to in the verse that states, “And it shall come to pass [vehaya], because [eikev] you will hearken” (Deuteronomy 7:12). As the Sages have said, the word vehaya always denotes a joyous event (Bereshith Rabba 42:4). This means that we must live in joy and love our neighbor by being on our heels (eikev) in order to provide him with what he lacks, even the most insignificant thing, and to listen to him as he speaks of his worries and troubles. When we act in this way and refrain from speaking ill of others, and when we remain immersed in joy, we bring about an awakening on earth that is reciprocated in Heaven.
Another important lesson is also taught to us in this parsha. It begins with the words vehaya eikev, which denote joy, and in the remainder of the parsha the Children of Israel are reminded of the sin of the golden calf and all they did to irritate the Holy One, blessed be He. This is in order to teach us that Torah study alone (that is, without the fear of Heaven) is not enough, for “Not by bread alone does man live” – bread referring to Torah (Yalkut Shimoni Mishlei 9) – “rather by everything that emanates from the mouth of G-d does man live” (Deuteronomy 8:3), which refers to faith in G-d. We may also explain it to mean the opposite, that faith alone is not enough without Torah study, since faith alone cannot be maintained. Both things together are needed: Torah study and faith. We should also stress that it is not only while studying that one should think of G-d, but always, even when on vacation and while resting. We can do this by searching our hearts, for it is written: “by everything that emanates from the mouth of G-d,” which is to say that we must always remember Him.
We may also explain that the verse alludes to the fact that if a Tzaddik is sick and cannot give an answer to his students, they should attach themselves to his books. It is only in that way that a person will receive the answers he needs, and that is what constitutes “because you will hearken” (0&3/:; "83) – whose initials form the word ;3 (“time”) – meaning that a man should set times for the joyful study of Torah.
With regards to this, in the Torah we find the phrase: “Because you will hearken to My laws [mishpatim]” (Deuteronomy 7:12). Why is the reference here not to decrees (chukim) or commandments (mitzvot), rather than exclusively to laws (mishpatim)? These types of ordinances are relatively simple and understood by each and everyone. Even non-Jews have these types of ordinances, which is why the Torah comes to teach us that a Jew must perform them with immense joy on the inside – to the depths of his being – rather than being satisfied with a superficial approach. For example, when the Torah writes, “You shall not murder,” it includes the command not to shame another Jew. Similarly, “You shall not steal” refers to stealing a person’s opinion (i.e., making a person believe something which isn’t true).
The verse also alludes to the fact that the reward for performing mitzvot is given in the future, at the time that precedes the coming of Mashiach (Ikveta d’Mashiach, literally “the heal of Mashiach”). As it is written, “In the future, the Holy One, blessed be He, will give to each righteous individual 300 worlds” (Sanhedrin 100a). The main part of this reward deals with the mitzvot that man has a tendency to trample underfoot (literally, “with his heels”), as Rashi writes: “If you observe the easy mitzvot that a man tramples on with his heels, G-d will keep His promise to you” (Rashi on Deuteronomy 7:12).
I have found the following parable in Likutei Torah of the Baal HaTanya: It is like a king whose servant wanted to please him. After having thought about it a great deal, he decided to bring him a talking ape, a rare thing indeed, which he would no doubt greatly enjoy. Similarly, when we want to bring joy to the King of kings, it is not enough to be satisfied with simple things. A person’s entire heart must be focused onto accomplishing His will. That is what will bring joy to the King.
In my humble opinion, the fact that the passage contains the word vehaya, which denotes joy, shows that the King has joy “because ["83] you will hearken,” solely when a man performs the important mitzvot by considering himself like a "83, a heel (i.e., humble), by abasing himself completely. This is what brings joy to the Creator. In addition, the expression "83 %*%& has the same numerical value as "83* and the name &"(, which alludes to the atonement for harming the covenant of circumcision. This means that Yaakov, who continuously took hold of the idea of the heel, never arrives at committing this sin because he remembers that he is but dust.
The expression vehaya eikev also has the same numerical value as twice the Name Elokim, alluding to the fact that Yaakov fought twice against the manifestation of strict justice (once against Esau and once against his ministering angel). He defeated them twice and transformed them into mercy. This is the reason why he said, “I am too small for all the mercies” (Genesis 32:11), which means: “I am too small because I am only a heel. In examining myself, I said, ‘What am I that the Holy One, blessed be He, shows me His goodness?’ ” By the merit of this humility, which corresponds to the covenant of circumcision, he is protected and saved from strict justice.
In reality, to succeed in Torah a man should reduce himself to nothing before every Jew, as it is written, “Who is wise? He who learns from every person” (Perkei Avoth 4:1), and further, “From all my teachers I grew wise” (Psalms 119:99). There is an allusion to this idea in the verse that states, “From where [mei’ayin] will my help come?” (ibid. 121:1), for mei’ayin can also be read “as nothing,” meaning that the man who considers himself “as nothing” will be helped because of it.