Microaggressions and the Moral Imperative

by Rabbi Mike Moskowitz

וְהָיָ֣העֵ֣קֶב תִּשְׁמְע֗וּן אֵ֤ת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים֙ הָאֵ֔לֶּה וּשְׁמַרְתֶּ֥ם וַעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אתָֹ֑ם וְשָׁמַר֩ יְהוָֹ֨ה אֱלֹהֶ֜יךָ לְךָ֗ אֶֽת־הַבְּרִית֙ וְאֶת־הַחֶ֔סֶד אֲשֶׁ֥ר נִשְׁבַּ֖ע לַאֲבתֶֹֽיךָ׃

And it will be because (eikev)1 of your listening to these ordinances, and your observing and performing them: that HaShem, your God, will safeguard for you the covenant and the kindness that [God] swore to your ancestors.
Deuteronomy 7:12

“Microaggressions,” by definition, might not sound like such a big deal, but like micro-transgressions, they weigh heavily against the freedom of total liberation. Rashi explains that the word “עֵ֣קֶב”, meaning “heel,” is used in this verse to frame the conditions of our relationship with God to bring awareness “that it is the relatively light commandments that a person tramples with their heels” that God is asking us to listen to here. In relationships, it is the little things that often matter most.

Being sensitive to the wellbeing of society, physically or spiritually, requires a great attention to detail, particularly in the places that have historically been ignored. This is nothing new. The covenant referenced in this verse is the one God made with Abraham. Abraham wasn’t selected to be in a unique relationship with God because he was special, but because when God said to the world “lech lecha — go for yourself,” he was the only person who listened, and that is what made him special.2

For the rabbis, listening to the minor instructions of the Torah is equally as important as listening to the most significant speech ever given, the Divine Revelation on Mt. Sinai. This is alluded to in the word “Eikev” having a numerical value of 172, the exact number of words3 in The Ten Commandments.4 Additionally, the first two words of parshat Eikev “וְהָיָ֣ה עֵ֣קֶב” share the numerical value of the first of the Ten Commandments — אָֽנכִֹ֖י֙ ולֹֽ֣א יִהְיֶ֥͏ֽה לְךָ֛֩ — I and no other shall be your [God].5

It is this continuing echo, from the giving of the Torah, described as a “ק֥וֹל גָּד֖וֹל וְלֹ֣א יָסָ֑ף — a great voice that did not stop,”6 that we are being reminded to listen to, just as Abraham did. When God makes the promise, “I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven,”7 God explains that “עֵ֕קֶב אֲשֶׁר־שָׁמַ֥ע אַבְרָהָ֖ם בְּקלִֹ֑י — Eikev — because Abraham obeyed My voice” and listened to the commandments.

To hear this voice, though — to accept this invitation — requires precise attunement, just as our awareness of the impact of our actions, and inactions, necessitates a lot of training. The heel, eikev, is the least sensitive part of our bodies and is naturally callused against feeling the pain from the outside world. It is our apathy and lack of feelings that allow us to tread on those whose screams we do not hear.

When the Israelites were offered the Torah, they said, “we will do and we will hear.”8 The attribute of “doing” was lost when the golden calf was made, and now we are left to guard the “hearing.”9 At the giving of the Torah, the entire world stopped what it was doing. The Midrash teaches that the birds took a break from chirping and even the waves of the ocean paused for the epic event. Everyone heard the Ten Commandments because there was nothing else happening to offer a distraction or ambient noise to muffle the message.10

Today, protecting our ability to hear the voices that society is trying to silence is the supernatural experience of biblical proportions. עֵ֣קֶב Eikev is an anagram for an establishment — קבע kovea.11 Progress mandates fixing pre-existing fixtures. It is in the space of the acceptable social construction of established precedent that we must accustom ourselves to challenge and reconfigure.

This world is described by the rabbis as being upside down12 “דעולם הפוך”. Perfection is only achieved when nothing is overlooked and everything is used justly. By elevating the downtrodden, we become co-creators in the reordering of the world.

In advancing the cause of deontological goodness, no one is too insignificant to fight for. We don’t need to wait for an additional invitation because God has already issued the moral imperative to guard the oppressed and overlooked as our part in perpetuating God’s kindness. What makes something right or wrong isn’t determined by how right or wrong it is.

  1. Eikev” is sometimes used as a conjunction and other times as a noun. Also the root of Jacob’s name in Genesis 25:26.
  2. See Sfas Emes 632 in Lech Lecha.
  3. In the first set of Tablets.
  4. Baal Haturim.
  5. 198 – see Halekach V’Halebuv.
  6. Deuteronomy 5:19.
  7. Genesis 26:4 עֵ֣קֶב
  8. Exodus 24:7.
  9. Midrash Aggadah.
  10. Rav Tzadok observes the connection between the Hebrew word for noise and evil — rash.
  11. See commentary to Baal Haturim.
  12. See Tosafor on Bava Batra 10b.
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