The word עקב appears only 5 times in all of Chumash as a subordinating conjunction. It’s difficult to translate because it employs a metaphor, though I’d translate is as ‘on the heels of…’ which captures the sense of immediacy, the sense of consequence, and the relationship for the Hebrew word for ‘heel’.
There are several commonalities between each instance of the term:
- In EVERY occasion, the consequence is predicated as a reward for having hearkened (or not hearkened) to the word of God (the root שמע appears each time)
- In EVERY instance, the promise of children is reiterated.
- EVERY instance is related to God’s covenant with the Patriarchs.
- In 4 of the 5 occasions, the ‘consequence’ introduced by the term ‘ekev’ is inheriting the Land of Israel. The exception is Bereishit 22:18, at the end of the Akeida. However, according to the Rashbam (which I translated and commented upon here, on MY z”l), the entire episode may have been a test of Avraham’s` relationship to the land.
It seems to be a term used specifically to refer to the original covenant between God and Abraham (in our parsha, the brit is explicitly invoked). The Torah itself is an expression of this very covenant. Throughout the Torah, the most consistent consequences for obedience are possession of the land for ourselves and our posterity, and the land yielding its fruits to us.
In the book of Devarim, there are a number of recapitulations of the consequences for obedience and disobedience in the Land of Israel (R’ Elchanan Samet counts 12); each one is subtly different. The unique character of the one at the beginning of Ekev is in the fact that it’s also a restatement of Brit Avot. But there’s more.
The second verse of the Parsha, in addition to invoking the Land of Israel as the locus of the fulfillment of God’s covenant, restates the very first bracha to man: Be fruitful and multiply. Throughout the book of Bereshit, this bracha is reiterated whenever God establishes or re-establishes His Covenant. This is straight through until Ve-Yechi, where Yaakov takes the birth of Ephraim and Menashe as the ultimate fulfillment of the promise that God made to him during his second visit to Beit-El (check it out; you’ll never read Va-Yechi the same). In essence, Bereishit charts the course of this bracha from Adam through Yaakov, after which it becomes the blessing of a whole family, not just an individual (note the Torah’s description of Israel’s increase at the beginning of Shemot).
In this way, the consequences of obedience and disobedience, material prosperity and exile, respectively, by Israel in its Land is perfectly parallel to the state of Adam in the Garden of Eden. Exile from Israel is mythically rooted in man’s expulsion from the garden, his rejection from God’s Presence. Conversely, to live by God’s covenant in Israel is not only to become fully ‘Jewish’ (as I told CNN), but it’s also to realize the fullness of one’s humanity.
It’s worth noting that the opening of the parsha refers specifically to obeying Mishpatim – the laws that govern interpersonal relations. Adding Rashi to the mix, as I wrote last year, yields an awesome insight – that the fullness of our humanity is realized through the ‘little things’ of our interactions with other humans, and that’s the challenge of our life in Israel.
My question from last year – who cares if there are infertile male animals? – simply falls away if this bracha is part of a larger restatement of ‘Peru U-revu’. It’s about an explosion of boundless fertility. Again, see the beginning of Shemot for parallels. [Agav`, I believe that this is the idea behind the Midrashim of ‘Shisha be-keres echad’, ve-acamo”l].
Finally, to reinforce the idea that the consequences of obedience and disobedience of Ekev are rooted in the challenge issued to Adam in Eden, look at the first time that the root עקב is used in the Torah. It’s in the sentencing of the Snake, in the aftermath of Adam’s fall.