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Home>Jewish Living

Parashat Ekev
August 16, 2014 - 20 Av 5774

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 Adam Rosenbaum
Charleston, South Carolina

 

Picking up where he left off, Moses exhorts the Israelites to follow God and God’s commandments. Fear of neighboring nations or victories against such peoples are not valid excuses to lessen devotion to God. The stakes for the people are high: they are about to enter a bountiful land where they can be fully satiated -- all of which can be taken away if they are not religiously resolute.

Moses knows that the Israelites’ track record is not good. He recalls how the people brazenly built a calf and made it an idol at the very time Moses was receiving the commandments. Nevertheless, God gives Moses a new set of tablets of the Law to replace the broken set, and allows the march to the Promised Land to continue.

In order to conquer and maintain control of the land of Canaan, the Israelites must erase their stubbornness, provide for the needy, and worship God only. Doing this, coupled with following the other commandments, will enable the land to produce prosperously; failing it, Israel’s bounty will disappear.

 

Theme #1: Prayer For Heeling

And if you do obey these rules and observe them carefully, the Lord your God will maintain faithfully for you the covenant that He made on oath with your fathers. (Deuteronomy 7:12)

According to Leviticus Rabbah, the word ve-hayah (“and there will be,” that is, “if you do obey these rules”) connotes joy wherever it occurs in the biblical text. And it is by means of joy that you will come to such a point that “you do obey these rules and observe them carefully …”. According to [the Talmud] Pesachim 31b, we learn that “money can only be guarded [by burying it] in the earth.” Mitzvot, Divine commandments, likewise can only be guarded (or kept) with simcha, joy. Rabbi Hanoch of Aleksandrow (of the Przysucha school) used to teach that “if you depart in simchah, joy, you will be transported in peace.” By means of joy, it is possible to leave every sorrow in peace. -- Lev Sameach

For the conjunction “if” the Scripture uses the expression ekev which, when employed as a noun, means “heel;” i.e., a part of the foot used in walking. This is to teach us that whenever a person takes a step, literally or figuratively, he must first reflect whether it would be in accordance with the will of the Lord, and if he should find that it is not, he must desist from it. The Scriptural verse should be understood as follows: And it shall be that at every step you hearken to learn whether it is the will of the Lord that you should take that step. -- Or Tzaddikim (Rabbi of Sassov)

We are told: If you will keep the “light” commandments, the legal safeguards which man finds easy to observe, and keep and do them -- and keep them inviolate within hedges and legal safeguards of your devising in order that you may be able to observe the commandments, then the Lord your God will keep with you the covenant and the loving-kindness -- God will reciprocate by sending you only goodness and mercy so that nothing may disturb or hinder you in the observance of the commandments which you are so anxious to keep. -- Imrei Shofar

Questions for Discussion:

Lev Sameach teaches that the first word of the Torah portion refers to something joyous; hence we should strive to do all of the commandments in a joyous manner. With so many commandments for us to observe, is it too much to ask for us to observe them both joyously and precisely? Should joy be a pre-requisite for Jewish observance? Could Lev Sameach mean that joy is the result of observing the commandments?

Or Tzaddikim relates the foot imagery in the word “ekev” to the steps we take, and the importance of evaluating as many of them as possible. What is the place of self-reflection in the creative process? What are its benefits? Is it possible to engage in too much self-reflection? Which is more effective, to engage in self-evaluation as we are taking our steps, or to do so in advance?

Imrei Shofar claims that keeping “simple” commandments (and the fences that surround them) will make it easier to keep the remainder of the commandments. As Maimonides and other Jewish philosophers have suggested, the habits we keep play a major role in shaping whether we will succeed or fail. What are habits that lead us to widespread success?

Theme #2: Gluten For Punishment

 [God] subjected you to the hardship of hunger and then gave you manna to eat, which neither you nor your fathers had ever known, in order to teach you that man does not live on bread alone, but that man may live on anything that the Lord decrees. (Deuteronomy 8:3)

Whether or not you enjoy loading up on carbs, this quote is familiar in both Jewish and Christian faiths, with numerous meanings among Jewish commentators.

What possible purpose could God have had to starve us in the wilderness? Normally when a person wants something to eat, once it is put into his hand, even if he refrains from eating it, his craving stops. But in spiritual matters, no matter how much one tries to quench one’s thirst, the yearning continues. And just this was the virtue of the mannah: Even though it was given to them every day, and in a measure appropriate to each person’s needs, a measure per person, nevertheless, despite all this, they were hungry and yearned for the mannah, and it did not satisfy their [yearning] at all. -- Mendl of Rymanov

How could the soul, which is purely spiritual, partake of physical food? Every creature exists only by reason of the command which the Lord gave at the time of Creation. It is the strength of the Divine command which is inherent in our physical food that provides nourishment for the soul. When a Jew takes a fruit and recites the blessing over it, he releases that inner, spiritual essence with which that fruit was endowed by the word of the Lord at the time of its creation, and it is that inner essence which provides the spiritual food the soul requires. This is the meaning of the Scriptural verse: Man does not live from the physical bread we can see, but man lives only by the word that went forth from the Lord at the time of Creation which caused the bread to come into existence. It is from this spiritual essence that man lives, because that is the food which provides nourishment for his soul. -- Likutei Torah

When [Deuteronomy] draws from the miracle of the manna the lesson that man does not live by bread alone, but “by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of Jahweh”, there can be no doubt that it was making use of ideas generally current among the prophets. Yet, while this idea of man’s total dependence upon the word of God originates with the prophets, it apparently only came to the surface, at least in so emphatic a form, in the seventh century; and the prophets themselves were certainly the first people to realise that their own lives were totally dependent on Jahweh. -- Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Volume II

Questions for Discussion:

Mendl of Rymanov understands the phrase “man does not live on bread alone” to mean that people cannot survive by merely being satisfied after eating basic food; in other words, being easily satisfied translates to stultification. It is not unusual to see highly successful people who achieve greatness by not resting on their laurels. Are there ways that we, as a society, need to set higher goals? Are there areas in which we should not feel merely satisfied? Are there ways that we, as a society, need to set higher goals? Are there areas in which we should not feel merely satisfied?

Likutei Torah understands the same phrase as a call to appreciate not only a physical manifestation of God’s creation, but also to cherish the Divine power that initiated creation in the first place. We sometimes say that “we don’t care how the sausage is made.” Leaving aside the likelihood that the sausage is not kosher, that sentiment suggests we are reluctant to know all the details of how a product is made because we are afraid of the disturbing steps that may have been taken in the sausage’s creation. Why does this make us afraid? In what aspects do we need to learn more about a product’s creation?

Gerhard von Rad claims that same phrase reflects a sensibility found most often among the later Israelite prophets, that God is the source of all. How does our modern-day liturgy reflect this idea? Is it difficult to imagine a kind of Judaism that does not see God as the source of everything?


 
 
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