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Torah Sparks

August 11, 2012 – 23 Av 5772

Annual: Deuteronomy 7:12 – 11:25 (Etz Hayim p. 1037; Hertz p. 780)
Triennial: Deuteronomy 9:4 – 10:11 (Etz Hayim p. 1042; Hertz p. 784)
Haftarah: Isaiah 49:14 – 51:3 (Etz Hayim p. 1056; Hertz p. 794)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph H. Prouser
Temple Emanuel of North Jersey - Franklin Lakes, NJ

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 long as there is a heaven over the earth.”

Theme #1: “Teaching to the Test”

“Remember the long way that the Lord your God has made you travel in the wilderness these past forty years, that He might test you by hardships to learn what was in your hearts: whether you would keep His commandments or not.” (Deuteronomy 8:2)

Study: Derash

“Was this to test their faith, because they could never be sure that the manna would appear the next day… Or was it to see if they would remain grateful to God even if they knew their food supply was assured? (Chumash Etz Hayim)

“It is in adversity that the true nature of man is seen. When hardships came upon the Israelites, they had stood the test. Although they had murmured and complained, under the restraining influence of Moses they had adhered to God.” (Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz)

“’That He might test you by hardships.’ Literally, ‘in order to afflict you for the purpose of testing you.’ The same word, anot – afflict – is used for the hardships imposed on Israel by the Egyptians (Exod. 1;11). In Egypt the afflictions were the work of the oppressor; in the desert they were instituted by God for Israel’s sake.” (Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut)

“Moses posits that God tests us with hardships to learn what is in our hearts. While I don’t believe that our traumas are God-given, I know that life tests us. Each test offers an opportunity to search our own heart and learn what it means to be human. We can find meaning in the pain, if we use it to open our hearts. “ (Rabbi Anne Brener)

“Test yourself on mankind. It is something that makes the doubter doubt, the believer believe.” (Franz Kafka)

Questions for Discussion

What was the test the Israelites endured? The trials of poverty (uncertainty regarding their food supply)? Or the perils of prosperity (remaining grateful and submissive even in times of plenty)? Which is the more difficult challenge? Have times (even moments) of adversity tested your character, your principles… and revealed what is in your heart? Do you, like Rabbi Brener, prefer to attribute such “traumas” to the inevitable vagaries of human existence rather, than to a divine plan? Which view makes faith more challenging?

Rabbi Plaut observes that the same Hebrew term is used for the Israelites’ suffering in Egypt and their treatment by God in the wilderness! What does this imply about the period of enslavement? About the nature of God? How might this information be used or discussed at our Seder tables?

Rabbi Hertz discusses the “restraining influence of Moses” and its impact on Israelite faith. How can religious leaders – or other exemplars of Jewish life – help to shape the faith and religious experience of those at spiritual risk in the Jewish community today? Is Moses the right model for such leadership?

Theme #2: “Rebel without a (First) Cause”

“As long as I have known you, you have been defiant toward the Lord.” (Deuteronomy 9:24)

Study: Derash

“This is in reference to Israel’s murmurings before the giving of the Torah.” (Nachmanides)

“The verse begins with the letter mem, just as it ends with a mem, to show that all forty years you were in the wilderness you were defiant [the numerical value of each mem is 20, for a total of 40 – JHP]. (Baal Ha-Turim)

“’Defiant toward the Lord’ (alternate translation: ‘Defiant with the Lord’). Even though you have rebelled by sinning, God has not cut off His relationship with you. You are still with God.” (Rabbi Mordechai Yosef of Ishbitz, Pri Tzadik)

Pride is still aiming at the best houses: men would be angels, angels would be gods. Aspiring to be gods, if angels fell; aspiring to be angels, men rebel. (Alexander Pope)

Men seldom, or never for a length of time and deliberately, rebel against anything that does not deserve rebelling against.” (Thomas Carlyle)

Questions for Discussion

What point is Nachmanides making? Did Israelite attitudes (and tendencies toward rebellion) significantly change after Sinai? Was the sin of defiance particularly egregious in the context of the revelation?

Building on the insight of the Baal Ha-Turim, there are actually eight occurrences of the letter mem in this short verse. What might the Biblical Author be trying to convey through this poetic, alliterative pattern? (Compare Edwin Markham’s poem, “Lincoln, the Man of the People”: “To make a man to meet the mortal need, A man to match the mountains and the sea…” or Robert Frost’s “The Death of the Hired Man”: “Mary sat musing at the lamp-flame on the table…”)

Does Alexander Pope’s remark apply to the Israelites? How might their persistent defiance be viewed as a virtue… as aspiration to something better? In Carlyle’s terms, did God somehow “deserve rebelling against”? How does such an audacious assertion differ from (or coincide with) the view of Pri Tzadik?

Where else in Biblical narrative is Israel depicted as characteristically defiant, insubmissive? How does this Scriptural motif relate to contemporary Jews? To the Jewish historical experience?

Historic Note

In Parashat Ekev, read on August 11, 2012, the Israelites are repeatedly instructed to “Go up and take possession of the land that I am giving you.” One year ago, on August 11, 2011, the Israeli Interior Ministry granted its final approval for building 1,600 settler homes in disputed East Jerusalem. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu commented: “We will continue to build in Jerusalem. This is our right and obligation… It is our national right to build our capital.”

Halachah L’Maaseh

The practice of Birkat Ha-Mazon, “Grace after Meals,” has its origin in Deuteronomy 8:10 (see also Mishnah Berachot 6:8; BT Berachot 37A). Rabbi Isaac Klein writes: “Like the benediction before the meal, the Grace afterwards raises the satisfaction of a physical craving into the realm of the spirit. Through the Grace, the family table becomes the family altar. The prayer not only expresses gratefulness for the food, but also binds the participants to their people by expressing gratitude to God for past favors to the people as a whole and hope for its blessed future” (Guide, p. 44). Those customarily invited to lead Birkat Ha-Mazon (if present among three or more have dined together) are a Kohen, a scholar (talmid chacham), or a guest (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 201:1-2).

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