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Torah Sparks

Parashat Ekev
July 27, 2013 – 20 Av 5773

Annual: Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25 (Etz Hayim p. 1037; Hertz p. 780)
Triennial: Deuteronomy 10:12-11:25 (Etz Hayim p. 1048; Hertz p. 789)
Haftarah: Isaiah 49:14-51:3 (Etz Hayim p. 1057; Hertz p. 794)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph 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 are contrasted with the beauty and bounty of the Promised Land that awaits them. The final verse of this description of the land is the scriptural basis for 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: "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…

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, 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: "Attired Souls and Tired Soles"

"The clothes upon you did not wear out, nor did your feet swell these forty years." (Deuteronomy 8:4)

Derash: Study

"The clouds of glory rubbed their clothes and brushed them like freshly laundered garments; and their little ones, as they grew up, their clothes grew with them." (Rashi)

"You never lacked for a change of clothing, that your clothing should wear out upon you for lack of fresh clothing. Similarly, your feet never swelled for lack of shoes, for God provided for all your needs. It was not by way of miracle that your clothing did not wear out." (Shadal)

"Linking the Clouds of Glory - that is, the imminent Divine Presence - with this sartorial miracle is a way of portraying God, like a loving parent, offering nurture and care in even the most mundane matters of life. To that end, we can turn Rashi's comment around and apply it to our own lives, and say: if you really appreciate how wonderful it is that you have clothing to wear on your journey through life, you could experience God's Presence in the act of putting on a clean set of socks every day, just like you could find the Divine Presence anywhere else you choose to be open to it. To me, Rashi's midrash suggests that the experience of being liberated allowed the Israelites to feel that even the clothing they took from Egypt was sufficient and wonderful, even miraculous." (Rabbi Neal Joseph Loevinger)

"Another indication of Israel's dependence on God and His control of nature: Israel's clothing and feet were immune to the effects of nature during the years in the wilderness." (Jeffrey Tigay, JPS Commentary)

"Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads." (Henry David Thoreau)

Questions for Discussion

Rashi and Rabbi Tigay view our verse as indication of a supernatural element in the experience of the Israelites; Shadal and Rabbi Loevinger seem to indicate a more worldly approach. How does Rabbi Loevinger reframe Shadal's interpretation of our verse? Where else in Scripture or in Jewish thought do we identify the miraculous in events that in no way depart from the natural order? Under what "natural" conditions have you sensed the miraculous at work?

Why does Shadal insist that no miracle is at work in this narrative detail?

Thoreau's comment applies to our text with particular precision! How is his insight a particularly "Jewish" view of Heaven… Providence… God's presence in our lives? How do we give ritual or liturgical expression to this view? Explore Rabbi Loevinger's understanding of God as a "loving parent." What other "parental" characteristics might we assign to God? In the Exodus (or other Biblical) narratives? In your own experience? What are the strengths and the limitations of this theological perspective?

Theme #2: "Spiritual Sclerosis"

"Cut away, therefore, the thickening about your hearts and stiffen your necks no more." [or… "Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no more stiffnecked" – King James Bible] (Deuteronomy 10:16)

Derash: Study

"Let your hearts be open to knowledge of the truth." (Ramban)

"Separate yourselves from desires that encumber and weigh upon you… Purify your hearts so that you will understand the truth." (Ibn Ezra)

"This expression refers to the metaphorical removal of the emotional blocks that prevent people from following God's teachings and that result in their rebellious behavior." (Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, Rabbi Andrea L. Weiss, The Torah: A Women's Commentary)

"Biblical psychology localizes feelings and emotions in the body and looks to the heart as the organ of comprehension – an uncircumcised heart is a closed mind." (Rabbi Sheldon Blank)

"Our tradition teaches that one of the many purposes of the covenant between God and the Jewish people is to elevate the human experience to help us find, recognize and create holiness in our lives and those we touch. Anything that prevents this, our parasha instructs us, must be cut away and removed so that the treasure that lies inside can be receptive once again. This week entertain a new idea, embrace an old but now distant friend, rekindle relationships long dormant with those we love and have loved, let the words of Torah, the teachings of Judaism once again be a sign upon our hands, set them as a seal upon our hearts." (Rabbi Dan Moskovitz)

"You change your life by changing your heart." (Pastor Max Lucado)

Questions for Discussion

What is the goal of "circumcising" one's heart? Insight? Open-mindedness? Moral continence and purity? Understanding? Emotional health and intelligence? Access to the holy? Which of these theories may also inform physical circumcision: Brit Milah? Conversely, how does the practice of Brit Milah elucidate the meaning of this odd verse?

How do we go about fulfilling the directives of this biblical text?

Our verse seems to offer a mixed metaphor. How does an uncircumcised heart differ from a (willfully) stiff neck? Which is a more serious "condition"? Why is "stiff-necked" such a common Biblical indictment of the People Israel?

Is Pastor Lucado right, or does he have it backwards? Is it more accurate to say that we eventually change our hearts by first willfully changing our lives, our behavior, habits, lifestyle? How is the Pastor's formulation characteristically Christian, and how does this proposed reformulation more reflect a Jewish perspective? What do these two faith traditions have to learn from each other in this regard?

Historic Note

Parashat Ekev, read on July 27, 2013, assures the Israelite nation: "For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with streams and springs and fountains issuing from plain and hill; a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey; a land… where you will lack nothing" (8:7-9). On July 27, 1920, Chaim Weitzmann was elected President of the World Zionist Organization. He would go on to become the first president of the State of Israel.

Halachah L'Maaseh

Only eight mitzvot are included in parashat Ekev. Among these is the halakhic duty to love the convert to Judaism. See Deuteronomy 10:19… "You shall love the ger (stranger, convert), for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt." The Chofetz Chayim suggests that the obligation to love the stranger may apply to anyone who "comes from another city or land to live among us" but applies with special force to the convert to Judaism (Sefer Ha-Mitzvot Ha-Katzar, Positive Commandment #61; see also Rambam, Mishneh Torah Hilchot De'ot 6:4, and Sefer Ha-Mitzvot Positive Commandment #207; and Sefer Ha-Chinuch Positive Commandment #431). Sefer Ha-Chinuch writes that this Mitzvah teaches us "grace and compassion" and is equated with our obligation to love God, who Himself is described as loving the ger (Deuteronomy 10:18), rendering this Mitzvah a particularly Godly act and sacred trust.

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