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Torah Sparks

August 20, 2011- 20 Av 5771

Annual: Deuteronomy 7:12 – 11:25 (Etz Hayim, p. 1037; Hertz p. 780)
Triennial: Deuteronomy 7:12 – 9:3 (Etz Hayim, p. 1037; Hertz p. 780)
Haftarah: Isaiah 49:14 – 51:3 (Etz Hayim, p. 1056; Hertz p. 794)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser
Baldwin, New York

Parashat Ekev opens with an elaborate description of the blessings and rewards that will be forthcoming when Israel is faithful to its Covenant. Israel’s enemies, in contrast, will suffer at God’s hand. Israel, too, will destroy hostile nations it encounters, despite its foes’ superior numbers. In so doing, Israel is instructed that it also must destroy all idolatrous images and cultic accoutrements: they must not be taken as booty or used in any way, lest they lead to idolatrous behavior among the Israelites themselves.

The hardships of the wilderness period – the crucible in which the Israelite nation was forged and tested – are contrasted with the beauty and bounty of the Promised Land that awaits them. The final verse of this description of the land – “When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to the Lord your God for the good land which He has given you” – is the scriptural basis for the practice of Birkat ha-Mazon, the grace after meals. This obligatory expression of gratitude is expanded to a more general principle. Israel is warned not to forget God’s beneficence in times of plenty. We are to remember that our well-being and prosperity, in fact all our achievements are results of God’s beneficence. Forgetting God will lead to punishment and destruction. Similarly, the Israelite conquest of Canaan – fulfilling God’s assurances to the patriarchs – will be effected only through divine agency and Providence, not on the basis of any virtue or power of the Israelites themselves. To emphasize this distinction, Moses recounts Israel’s long history of faithlessness and provocations throughout the wilderness period. Israel’s leader leaves no doubt as to his – or God’s – expectations of the covenant people: “What does the Lord your God demand of you? Only this: to revere the Lord your God, to walk only in His paths, to love Him, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and soul, keeping the Lord’s commandments and laws, which I enjoin upon you today, for good.” The first example provided of “walking in God’s paths” is Israel’s duty to treat strangers lovingly.

Moses further contrasts the dire consequences of disloyalty to God and the rewards awaiting God’s faithful. He similarly contrasts the life the Israelites knew in Egypt with the particular blessings – natural and spiritual – awaiting them in the land of Israel, “a land that the Lord your God looks after, on which the Lord your God always keeps His eye, from year’s beginning to year’s end.” These two themes are intimately linked: conquest and possession of the land will be achieved through fidelity to God’s laws.

The nexus between law and land is given closing emphasis in a reprise of the earlier passage in parashat Vaetchanan – known to us as the first paragraph of the Shema – V’Ahavta. Israel is instructed to “impress these My words upon your very heart: Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead, and teach them to your children – reciting them when you stay home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up, and inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and your gates”… adding: “to the end that you and your children may endure, in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers to assign to them, as as long as there is a heaven over the earth.”

Theme #1: “By virtue of the authority vested in Me…”

“Know, then, that it is not for any virtue of yours that the Lord your God is giving you this good land to possess; for you are a stiff-necked people.” (Deuteronomy 9:6)

Study: Derash

“Moses wanted to emphasize and establish that the gift of the Land of Israel was not given to the Jews by virtue of the good deeds of any particular generation. Rather it was a gift to Klal Yisrael (the Jewish people as a whole); that is, to all generations. Thus, Moses wanted to encourage those generations that lacked good deeds and inform them that they were capable of acquiring the land despite their shortcomings.” (Chiddushei Ha-Rim)

“It was that stiff necked characterization of the Jews; the persistence to maintain bad habits that lead to destruction. Yet, it is this trait of stubbornness that is also the secret to the Jews’ survival. Other nations would have waned under intimidation of Hadrian. But the Jews would not be crushed. They were determined at any cost to fight for their survival as Jews.” Larry Domnitch, The Mystery of Lag Ba-Omer and the Stiff Necked People

“Stubbornness is a powerful trait. However, like any characteristic, it is neither positive nor negative in and of itself. Rather, it is a fact of our existence as a people. The question, both for us as individuals and as part of the Jewish people, is how we will use this powerful trait and what effect it will have on our lives and the lives of the people around us.” Rabbi Label Lam

“It gives me great pleasure indeed to see the stubbornness of an incorrigible nonconformist warmly acclaimed.” Albert Einstein

“No one has ever found the Lord through stubborn mindedness.” Guru Gobind Singh

“Here I stand; I can do no other. God help me. Amen.” Martin Luther

Questions for Discussion

In what ways does stubbornness (“stiffnecked-ness”) manifest itself in the Jewish people today? What are the positive and negative results of this collective trait? For diaspora communities? For the citizenry of the Jewish state?

In addition to Einstein himself, what other stubborn and incorrigible nonconformists have the Jewish people produced? Who has played critical roles in the survival and advancement of the Jewish people?

In regard to what goals, principles and ideals have you demonstrated insufficient determination? Excessive stubbornness? When would you say: “Here I stand; I can do no other”?

Does the people Israel’s alleged lack of virtue weaken or strengthen the nation’s claim to the land of Israel? If the land was not a reward, what is its purpose in Jewish (and human) history? What other aspects of Jewish tradition are unrelated to any asserted virtue or inherent national quality? What moral principle does this lack of virtue or deserving offer the individual Jew? How would our individual spiritual efforts (and our national self-perception) differ if we did assert that our ancestors were entirely virtuous and deserving of God’s generosity?

How might Guru Gobind Singh respond to Jacob’s tenacity in wrestling with the angel: “I will not let you go until you bless me”?

Theme #2: “Stranger than Fiction”

“For the Lord your God is God supreme, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who shows no favor and takes no bribe, but upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing – You too must love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:18-19)

Study: Derash

“This idea – counterintuitive, unexpected, life-changing – is one of the great contributions of the Torah to Western civilization and it is set out in the words of our sedra, when Moses told the people about the ‘G-d of gods and Lord of lords, the great, mighty and awe-inspiring G-d’ whose greatness lay not just in the fact that He was Creator of the universe and shaper of history, but that ‘He upholds the cause of the orphan and widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing.’ Those who do this are the true men and women of G-d.” British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

“‘Takes no bribe. Love the stranger.’ One cannot buy divine forgiveness for wicked deeds by giving large donations to charity. Even if a man’s good works should take the form of caring for widows, orphans, and strangers, giving them food and clothing, God will not accept his charity as atonement for past sin. You are to love the stranger because you were once strangers yourselves, and not in order to bribe God into forgiving your wicked deeds.” Ketav Sofer

“How striking! A claim of greatness that has nothing to do with demonstrations of force, with killing, or with intimidation. God’s greatness, says Moses, is based on moral rectitude, fairness, and compassion for the weakest members of society: orphans, widows, and strangers. What a role model to hold out to the rest of us! True greatness consists in our using our strength, our wealth, our wisdom and our power to build communities of love, justice and caring, to reach out to those who cannot fend for themselves, to build bridges with all humanity and with all living things, to care for the earth and all who dwell upon it.” Rabbi Howard Gorin

“The ancient Jews were told by their lawgiver Moses to remember the stranger; this was a challenge to them to build a future world where nobody would be a stranger.” Rabbi Charles E. Shulman

“In the perfect stranger we perceive man himself; the image of a God is not disguised by resemblances to an uncle or doubts of wisdom or a mustache.” Gilbert K. Chesterton

“We cannot possibly let ourselves get frozen into regarding everyone we do not know as an absolute stranger.” Albert Schweitzer

Questions for Discussion

The Jewish Publication Society Tanakh translation (and the chumash Etz Hayyim, which uses it) says “befriend the stranger” rather than “love the stranger.” What is the functional difference between loving and befriending? Which is a more attainable goal? Which is more “Godly”? Which more benefits the stranger?

How does the “great contribution of the Torah to Western civilization” – identified by Rabbi Sacks – find expression in today’s Judaism: in our own spiritual lives, in the activities of our congregations, in Jewish thought and practice? Where is there room for improvement? What else do you consider a great contribution of the Torah to Western civilization”?

The phrase “great, the mighty, and the awesome God” appears in the first blessing of the Amidah, recited at least three times every day (four times when Musaf is added; five times on Yom Kippur, when Neilah is also added!). How does the scriptural context of this descriptor change our understanding of the liturgical unit in which it plays so prominent a role? What is the connection between eschewing bribery and providing for the widow and orphan? What do we mean when we say that God “takes no bribe”?

Our text connects our principled treatment of strangers with our own historic experience as strangers. Chesterton seems to identify in the stranger the image of God Himself, while Schweitzer objects to the very concept of stranger. How do you understand the mitzvah of “loving” and providing for strangers? What is the religious meaning of this religious imperative? Is what we think about this verse critical to our observance of the mitzvah?

Historic Note

Parashat Ekev, read on August 20, 2011, opens with a panoply of promises – rewards for Israel’s faithfulness to the covenant, including: “The Lord will ward off from you all sickness; He will not bring upon you any of the dreadful diseases of Egypt, about which you know, but will inflict them upon your enemies” (Deuteronomy 7:15). On August 20, 1920, pre-State Israel saw publication of its first medical journal: “Ha-Refuah.”

Halachah L’Maaseh

In addition to the commandment to “love the stranger,” examined above, parashat Ekev also cites the religious imperative to love God. This mandate is included in Deuteronomy 11:13-21, which is familiar as the second paragraph of the Shema. In his commentary on the Siddur, “Tefillat Amecha,” Rabbi Shlomo Avineri of Yeshivat Ateret Yerushalayim writes: “In the second paragraph of Shema, we accept that God has given us the Mitzvot and that we will follow them. As part of this, we read that we are ‘to love the Lord Your God and serve Him with all your hearts and all your souls.’ This is very important. Our motivation to fulfill the Mitzvot is our love of God. Although one can perform Mitzvot without love or desire, this is far less than ideal. Doing the Mitzvot with joy is part of the Mitzvot themselves. To perform Mitzvot without love and joy and only out of obligation is like a husband telling his wife, ‘I don’t really love you. I’m just with you because I promised.’ Thus, we are told in the Shema that loving God is part and parcel of the Mitzvot.”

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