July 27, 2013 3 Comments
This is the talk I delivered this morning at Kesher Israel.
In case anyone hasn’t kept track, today is the 123rd day of the omer, which is 17 weeks and 4 days. The omer-count is something done in the seven-week period between Passover and Pentecost – it’s the quintessential example of “marking time” in the Jewish calendar. From that period we get lots of practices, including the wait between minha and ma’ariv on holidays during which questions about whether Commander Data could convert to Judaism are considered completely reasonable. But really, the omer period itself is defined by the endpoints – and in the way that the covenant of Avram was the covenant bein ha-betarim – “between the pieces” – so too that period between the two holidays marks the growth of the covenantal relationship of the jewish people with God from Exodus to revelation.
Now, there is a reason for remembering the omer-counting period today, which I hope will become clear in a few minutes.
So, this week’s parsha is Eikev, and it contains a lot of neat stuff.
It contains the one of the non-severability clauses in the Torah – kol mitzvotav asher anokhi mitzav’kha hayom (all of the commandments that i command you today). Non-severability, in that context, means that we don’t get to pick and choose which commandments are important. Rashi renders “eikev” as “heel” – specifically referring to the importance of observing those mitzvot which one would tread upon.
It’s also the source for how we sanctify our meals – after a description of how excellent the land of Israel is, we are told v’ahalta v’savata, u’veyrakhta, et A-donai Elokekha al haaretz hatova asher natan lakh (you will eat, and you will be satisfied, and you will praise the LORD your God for the good land which He has given you) – and being straightforward, literal minded people, we thus perform the commands in precisely that order. Of course, this is followed immediately by an injunction to avoid haughtiness and self-congratulation for success, lest we come to believe that the satisfaction we experience is due to the work of our own hands rather than coming from the bountiful and open hand of God Himself.
The injunction against haughtiness leads into a retelling of the great paradigmatic communal sin – that of the golden calf, followed by one of the things which grabbed my attention the most when I started preparing; Divine reward and punishment as a concept is discussed a whole lot here.
Now, this is a very important Jewish concept – Maimonides includes this as one of his 13 principles of faith, and it’s included in the sh’ma, our basic declaration of faith, twice daily – and in fact, the paragraph from the sh’ma discussing reward and punishment is comes from this parsha.
The language used in second paragraph of the sh’ma is what I found the most interesting (Deut. 11:13-15):
וְהָיָה, אִם-שָׁמֹעַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ אֶל-מִצְוֹתַי, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם, הַיּוֹם–לְאַהֲבָה אֶת-ייְ אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶם, וּלְעָבְדוֹ, בְּכָל-לְבַבְכֶם, וּבְכָל-נַפְשְׁכֶם: וְנָתַתִּי מְטַר-אַרְצְכֶם בְּעִתּוֹ, יוֹרֶה וּמַלְקוֹשׁ; וְאָסַפְתָּ דְגָנֶךָ, וְתִירֹשְׁךָ וְיִצְהָרֶךָ: וְנָתַתִּי עֵשֶׂב בְּשָׂדְךָ, לִבְהֶמְתֶּךָ; וְאָכַלְתָּ, וְשָׂבָעְתָּ:
If you indeed heed my commandments with which I charge you today, to love the LORD your God and worship him with all your heart and with all your soul, I will give you rain in your land in its season, the early and late rain, and you shall gather in your grain, wine, and oil. I will give grass in your field for your cattle, and you shall eat and be satisfied.
The paragraph continues in the converse: if we serve other gods, then the rain ceases, and we are punished.
Straightforward, right? Do good stuff, get rain, crops grow. Well, not quite.
This reward and punishment stuff is clearly important, but do we actually function this way? Do we really believe that rain is dependent on how much we love God?
We certainly are willing to look inward for sins and blemishes after calamities – thus we say that sinat hinam (baseless hatred) was the sin for which the second temple was destroyed. We accept that God does act in this world as force in history. However, are we willing to say that every everything is a direct reward or punishment? “Eating and being satisfied” is a basic condition of normalcy – but are we willing to say that the hungry or the sick person is being punished?
Are we willing to say that droughts happen because people weren’t righteous enough, or that suffering is only a result of sin? What about the whole book of Job, which addresses the suffering of a righteous man through no fault or sin of his own.
If we hold this way, then theodicy, the problem of evil in the world, rises to an intolerable volume. No, I’m certainly not willing to hold that suffering is only the result of sin, and fortunately, neither are our sages.
Really, they say, the time of the true judgement is some time after one’s death – on the day of judgement, and at that time true and complete justice will be meted out.
We see a piece of this in the response to being told of someone’s death – we say “Barukh Dayan Emet” – Blessed is the True Judge. In fact, we can see this opinion right here in ibn Ezra’s understanding of the name of the parsha itself – he renders “eikev’ as “in the end” – he sees the rewards of following the commandments as being granted in the next world rather than this one.
There is certainly precedent for using a specific language in the Bible even though it was never meant to be taken literally – consider lex talionis – “an eye for an eye” – that has always meant financial restitution, and was never intended for any sort of literal interpretation.
Great! So problem solved, right? All of the times where reward and punishment is brought up, we’re talking about in the world-to-come. However, we do still have a question – why use this particular set of words, right here?
The text of the Torah refers to rain in its season, grass for your field for your cattle, and other very much this-world phenomena. Are we then to understand that these are metaphors for next-worldly rewards? If so, why not just say that? There has to be more here that the Torah is trying to teach us.
I think I can propose an answer to why this paragraph is here, now, but we’ll need to go on some seeming tangents first.
Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch says that the switches in the grammar in our paragraph between the singular you and plural you (as an example, vetiroshekha versus nafshekhem)- is designed to introduce collectivism as a concept to the Jewish people – or to put it in the words of the Talmud., kol Yisrael arevim zeh lazeh – all Jews are responsible for one another: we are in fact our brother’s keeper.
This linking of the individual and collective experience in the way that R’ Hirsch describes fits nicely the time in which we find ourselves. Specifically, we’re in the second of the seven weeks of consolation – the time between Tisha b’Av and Rosh Hashana, where comforting messages steadily yield to greater introspection and a desire for teshuvah (repentance). The great sin of Tisha b’Av, as we understand it today, is sinat hinam – baseless hatred. We’re told that the proper tikkun – the mystical reparation which can heal the damage we have caused in our relationship with God and our fellow humans – is ahavat hinam – baseless love. I’ll get back to that.
Did you notice the number of weeks of consolation? In the same way that the seven-week omer count provides a time-marking bridge between the Exodus and revelation, this period of consolation provides a bridge between the communal experience of tragic destruction and the personal experience of judgement.
Back to the text of the parsha, the unaddressed question is the image of rain: here, rain represents the sheer bounty of God’s beneficence, bestowed upon the worthy, no?
But here’s the catch: it doesn’t ever just rain over one field. And there isn’t any indication that no righteous person could never have a wicked neighbor. So the Torah is showing us, in a clear manner, that God will give rain to the wicked person’s field due to the merit of the righteous person – and like what R’ Hirsch said, we are bound up as a community – we are our brother’s keeper, but the way in which we should keep our brother is shown by imitatio Dei – we should follow in the ways of God, and act out of ahavat hinam, just as God does toward us.
So to sum up, we have a paragraph which tells us to follow God’s commandments, all about the rewards and punishments which happen in the next world if we do or don’t, and the language used directs us to consider ourselves as part of a larger community. The here and now takeaway of that paragraph is that we can navigate the strait between the Scylla of Tisha b’Av and the Charybdis of Rosh Hashana by following the commandments of God, and behaving toward other people in the same manner that he showed us in that same paragraph: with baseless love.