An expression is used in today’s daf (Nazir 22b) which is not found anywhere else either in Massechet Nazir or, in fact, throughout the rest of the Talmud. Specifically, the word is בְּעִיקְבֵיךְ (which is generally translated as ‘in your footsteps’, although it could literally be translated as ‘in your heels’), and it is used in today’s daf while considering the halachic status of a woman who says to a Nezirah: הֲרֵינִי נְזִירָה בְּעִיקְבֵיךְ – ‘I am hereby a Nezirah in your footsteps’.
However, as Tosfot (DH Amra La) notes, there are two ways in which we could interpret בְּעִיקְבֵיךְ based on two different usages of the word עקב in the Torah.
In Bereishit 3:15, when God addresses the serpent, it is told: וְאַתָּה תְּשׁוּפֶנּוּ עָקֵב – ‘and you shall strike at their heel’. What this suggests is that עקב describes a vulnerable part of the body (as expressed by the phrase ‘Achilles heel’) – and in terms of its implications vis-à-vis our Gemara, Tosfot explains that according to this reading, הֲרֵינִי נְזִירָה בְּעִיקְבֵיךְ is a verbal formula for Nezirut that can be easily overturned.
At the same time, Tosfot also cites Bereishit 26:5 where God – while reassuring Yitzchak that he will be divinely protected – references the commitment of Avraham and how עֵקֶב אֲשֶׁר שָׁמַע אַבְרָהָם בְּקֹלִי – ‘it is because (עקב) Avraham listened to My voice’. Here, the word עקב cannot literally be understood to refer to a heel. Instead, it seems to refer to being deeply entrenched (as expressed by the phrase ‘to dig in your heels’). As Tosfot notes, if understood this way it suggests that הֲרֵינִי נְזִירָה בְּעִיקְבֵיךְ is a verbal formula for Nezirut that cannot be easily overturned.
Reflecting on this discussion it occurs to me that when we talk nowadays about following someone’s footsteps – this too could reflect either the ‘weak-heel’ interpretation, or the ‘dug-in-heel’ interpretation.
For example, I was recently speaking with someone who is currently working for a family business. From an observer perspective this individual is ‘following in the footsteps’ of their parent. The problem, however, is that this individual doesn’t really want to be working in their family business. True, it looks like they are following their parent. But they are actually only doing so because they were drawn into the business by others, and they felt bad saying no. In this situation their following is a weakness and an Achilles heel, not a strength.
At the same time I recently spoke with someone who is passionately continuing in the path of their teacher in terms of teaching and spreading Torah. Here too, from an observer perspective, this individual is ‘following in the footsteps’ of their teacher. Yet unlike in the above scenario, this is a form of strong ‘dug-in’ followership.
Sometimes we follow others, and sometimes people follow us. Still, not every type of followership is the same: when it comes to imitation, it is often a sign of weakness, but when it comes to emulation, it is often a sign of strength. Given this, we would do well to think carefully about who we follow and why, and whether doing so is a sign of strength, or weakness.