Wednesday, August 8, 2012

dvar on Ekev

Parashat Eikev

Deuteronomy 7:12–11:25
August 11, 2012 / 23 Av 5772
A Taste of Torah

A Commentary by Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz, Director of Israel Programs, JTS
This week’s commentary was written by Dr. Stephen Garfinkel, Associate Provost and Assistant Professor of Bible, JTS.
How will the Torah reading for this week, Parashat Eikev, stack up against last week’s reading (Va-ethannan), which included no less than the Ten Commandments and the Shema’? Obviously, that will be a hard act to follow! Be assured, though, that Eikev has plenty to offer us as well.
Most of Deuteronomy comprises several major speeches that Moses delivers to the Israelites as they are poised to enter their new homeland, especially because (as he has known, and as they recently found out) he will not be with them there. It is, therefore, reasonable to understand Moses’s discourses as his final attempts to educate the people, to exhort them to behave according to God's commands in the future, and to explain what will be the consequences of their actions. As such, last week’s reading and this week’s—which together form most of Moses’s second major valedictory speech to the people—provide two aspects of one integral message.
In last week’s reading, Moses offered the grand announcement, the front-page headlines supplemented by some amplification. This week, he follows up by emphasizing and clarifying even further the consequences of the people’s actions, in language and imagery designed to put more teeth into the grand ideals of the Ten Commandments. Eikev further grounds the theory in realities. It is designed to emphasize how the principles will function in practice, when the exhilaration of the Sinai memory has begun to fade, and the Children of Israel must face the daily responsibilities of communal life as God’s people in their new surroundings. Eikev, like so much of Deuteronomy, conveys a highly utilitarian—one might be tempted to say crass—theology. If the nation observes God’s laws and remains faithful to God’s Covenant, God will favor the people in very specific ways: with human, animal, and agricultural fertility; with health; and with protection against disease and enemies. Conversely, if the nation is unfaithful to God or the Covenant, the rains will not fall at the times they are needed, the produce will wither, and the people will “perish from the land.”
Really? Is that a theological stance most readers of this column, enlightened and thoughtful as they are, can believe in 2012? If we violate Shabbat or don’t observe kashrut or don’t recite the daily liturgy, will it really not rain? Perhaps many of us see that thinking as simply an old-fashioned belief that was fine for our ancestors “way back then,” but which no longer holds water (so to speak). After all, that kind of theology sounds more like bribery, extortion, or even magic: by our enacting certain behaviors, we determine God’s actions in return. 

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.
Parashat Eikev is centered on the Land of Israel. As the Israelites stand on the verge of entering the Land, they are promised prosperity in return for their loyalty to God’s commandments. Torah, however, anticipates the downside of the success, affluence, and prosperity that await the young nation. As Deuteronomy 8:11–14 declares, “Take care lest you forget the Lord your God and fail to keep His commandments . . . which I enjoin upon you today. When you have eaten your fill and build fine houses to live in . . . beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget the Lord your God.” Affluence breeds the dangerous perception of self-sufficiency. Indeed, the Israelite relationship with God is paramount. This message is underscored in the moving description offered of the Land of Israel in Deuteronomy 11:10: “For the land that you are about to enter and possess is not like the land of Egypt from which you have come.” Why does Torah seek to juxtapose Egypt and Israel? What may we learn about ourselves and about the Land of Israel?
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch elaborates,
Egypt’s fertility is independent of the rain. It is watered by the Nile irrigation canals cut right through the country, made and worked by human efforts . . . But Palestine is a land dependent for its supply of water on the mountain springs fed by the rainfall. Moreover, the country was built not only in the valleys or plains but also on the mountains and hilly districts where means for artificial watering are impossible. So ultimately fertility is entirely dependent on rainfall. (Hirsch, Commentary on Numbers, 182)
Clearly, according to Torah as well as Hirsch’s commentary, “earthly Jerusalem” (Yerushalayim shel matah) is intimately connected to and dependent on Jerusalem of the heavens (Yerushalayim shel ma’alah). Water, especially in Israel, cannot be taken for granted. Not only is it a literal sign of divine favor and nourishment, but it is also a figurative symbol of the vital relationship between God and the People. Even when the People are blessed by abundance, they must not lose sight of the true source of their blessing: the partnership between God and man. Torah anticipates and cautions that there will come a prosperous day when the Israelites will say, “‘My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me,’” and it goes on to direct us, “Remember that it is the Lord your God who gives you the power to get wealth . . . ” (Deuteronomy 8:17–18). The Land of Israel teaches us the vital lesson of humility. Only by diminishing our egos may we truly enrich ourselves, our communities, and our connection to God.
The publication and distribution of A Taste of Torah are made possible by a generous grant from Sam and Marilee Susi.

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