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Parashat Eikev
Devarim (Deuteronomy) 7:12-11:24

This week's portion, Eikev in Devarim (Deutoronomy) is Moses' exhortations to follow God's commandments, his reminders of past commandment-breaking and warnings about future transgressions, his reiterations of God's promises to the Israelites to the land of Israel as a reward for their righteousness and as a punishment to the wicked inhabitants of the land.  It includes the famous phrase contained in this passage:

So you shall observe the entire commandment that I command you today, so that you will be strong, and you will come and possess the Land to which you are crossing the Jordan, to possess it, and so that you will prolong your days on the Land that Hashem swore to your forefathers to give them and to their offspring -- a Land flowing with milk and honey. [Devarim 11:8-9]

Moses made these statements knowing that he would not be allowed to cross the Jordan into Eretz Yisrael with his people.

The name of the portion, Eikev, is the second word of the portion and is Hebrew for footstep, footprint, and in consequence, among other words. It's been interpreted in several ways including: following commandments, consequences for behavior, and as being about commandments to which people pay little attention so they figuratively "tread on them with their heels."  This portion is all about the overarching power of God, the Children of Israel's obligation to obey God's commandments, the promise to the Israelites of the land of Israel and victory over its current (at that time) inhabitants, and the threat that the Israelites will end up like those nations God destroyed if they do not obey God's laws.   (It's the next portion that actually has detailed commands e.g., laws on what's kosher, tithing, debt forgiveness).  

I think of this portion as the carrot and the stick.  The carrot is not only a good land but promises that God will make sure that it rains when needed, that everyone (people and animals!) will be fertile, and that enemies -- more numerous than the Israelites -- will be conquered.  
The stick is the reminder of how the Israelites behaved badly over the last 40 years and only survived God's wrath because of Moses' intercession, that God has destroyed other nations and can do the same to the Israelites, and that God controls the weather and can make the land productive or not.

There is very little to soften this portion in modern eyes: a comment about treating converts well: "you shall love the proselyte for you were strangers in the land of Egypt" [Devarim 10:19]; and how God does not "show favor " and does "not accept a bribe," which has been interpreted to mean that the rich win no extra love from God.  According to one commentary, the interpretation of "to love Hashem, your God, to walk in all His ways and to cleave to Him," [Devarim 11:22] means imitating God's acts of kindness and concern for the needy, but I didn't see much evidence for that interpretation in the actual words of the Torah.

To be honest, it's been years since I read Torah portions such as this one and I had forgotten how utterly distant the views expressed seem from my life.  When I go to temple, I'm happy that so many of the prayers are in Hebrew -- growing up, I was in our (very) Conservative synagogue 4 times/week; I know synagogue Hebrew and the prayers and can sing them with great joy, but the translations that are so often about the greatness of God leave me cold.  If God does not accept bribes, why is such fulsome praise necessary?

The other problem I have with this portion is that it is part of the basis for the ultra-Orthodox in Israel to claim the right to land on the West Bank.  If you assume your religion is truth, that every word in the Torah (or Bible) is directly from God, then this portion says that God has given you the land from the Jordan to the Mediterranean as your own.  Of course, that means that everyone else's claims to the land (and all other religions) are false.  
But even if one accepts this justification (which I, of course, don't), it doesn't explain why Israel shouldn't claim even more land -- after all, at the end of this Torah portion it says

every place where the sole of your foot will tread shall be yours -- from the Wilderness and the Lebanon, from the river, the Euphrates River, until the western sea [Mediterranean] shall be your boundary. [Devarim 11:24]
Wow, so parts of Syria and Iraq and Lebanon should all be part of "Greater Israel!"
Of course, a more limited amount of land is defined in Bamidbar/Numbers 34:1-12 that corresponds more closely with the settlers' claims and is in direct conflict with the boundaries suggested in Devarim:Eikev.  So in the commentary, this part of Devarim is re-interpreted as "Moses looked ahead to the coming of Messiah, when the Euphrates will be the border of the Land." [The Chumash, edited by Rabbis Nosson Scherman and Meir Zlotowitz, p.997].  Like all other fundamentalists, I'm sure the ultra-Orthodox Jews have found ways around the built in contradictions in their religious texts.  

And that brings me to my final thoughts.  
The Hebrew word eikev, according to my ancient (copyright 1957) Hebrew dictionary also means "to deceive."  While I found no allusion to this in any commentary I looked at, if you put the word deceit or guile into Google translate, one of the Hebrew words you get back is the noun form of eikev (eikivah).  In the way of so many rabbis who argue every possible meaning of every possible word ("does 'you should remember all the days of your life' mean nights also?"), maybe we should take that other meaning of eikev as an indication that not every word in this portion is true.  After all, Moses was speaking for God and humans are fallible, deceitful, and full of guile.

Originally posted to Elders of Zion on Wed Aug 17, 2011 at 02:04 PM PDT.

Also republished by Street Prophets .

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Comment Preferences

  •  tips for my 1st attempt (10+ / 0-)

    at D'var Torah.

    If, in our efforts to win, we become as dishonest as our opponents on the right, we don't deserve to triumph.

    by Tamar on Wed Aug 17, 2011 at 12:36:46 PM PDT

  •  asdf (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Tamar, ramara, sberel, Navy Vet Terp, mayim
    If God does not accept bribes, why is such fulsome praise necessary?

    It's not for purposes of bribery. You don't have to read it that way. I see the liturgy as being full of layers and you can find different ones that suit you.

    At the time a lot of these words were written, it is unclear whether the Hebrews were really monotheistic or just worshipers of only The One. I would be thankful in that position to be a subject of YHWH, who, even though he seemed to have a few harsh decrees, would not demand my child be thrown to the fire.

    The harsh folkways that so many of us make fun of and deride from the Torah are not meant to apply in toto today. Even the most ultra-Orthodox Jew knows that. The Rabbis have softened it much. But at the time, this code was the liberation manifesto of a religion seeking to disconnect the state and "church" as it were in Egypt, Canaan, and Babylon, whose caesaropapist state religions sought to dissolve the bonds of family, band, and tribe.

    So, you can lean more heavily on the Passover-type message that permeates Moses's exhortations.

    Also, you can see "God" as nothing more than that thing that unifies Jews. We're the ones that are tortured, beaten, oppressed, expelled, spat upon and yet still say glory to his great name. Is that bribery?

    Or is that we have a higher authority? The rule of law doesn't exist where there is no higher authority, abstract or otherwise. Our stubborn insistence, despite all of the things that others do to us, in that higher rule, and a hope that it won't always be that way, to me, is an important part of the Jewish soul.

    GOP: The Party of Acid rain, Abortion of the American Dream, and Amnesty for Wall Street.

    by Attorney at Arms on Wed Aug 17, 2011 at 02:17:16 PM PDT

    •  I know what you mean about "softening." I took (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      sberel, Navy Vet Terp, ramara, mayim

      an advanced Hebrew class when I was in 10th grade -- reaching the Chumash in Hebrew (I still can't believe I did that, but apparently I was okay at it). Our teachers were scholars and were all Orthodox and male.
      I don't remember much but there were a couple of things.  One was that for all the talk in the Chumash of stoning and killing for transgressions, a court that executed one person in 7 (I think it was) years was called a "bloody Besdin." What does that make the Texas courts?
      A second was, and remember, this came from Orthodox men, that women were excused from, not forbidden to perform the religious duties like reading the Torah in services, etc.  The idea was that they might be nursing a child and not be able to come.  These guys were pretty damn sexist, yet they didn't subscribe to the "women can't be on the Bimah, can't read the Torah" that seems to permeate so much of the Chasidic and ultra-Orthodox community.   (The irony was that our Conservative synagogue hadn't let me read a Torah portion at my Bat Mitzvah, and that's what I wrote my speech about).

      If, in our efforts to win, we become as dishonest as our opponents on the right, we don't deserve to triumph.

      by Tamar on Wed Aug 17, 2011 at 02:38:29 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  asdf (0+ / 0-)

        I believe the number was higher than 1 in 7. The halakha was set up to more or less make the death sentence a procedural impossibility.

        I think the sexism that was inherent in so much of the old religion was corrected well by the non-orthodox and will be the lasting legacy of the 20th century in Judaism. As for the Orthodox, well, that's why they're orthodox. If they change, it comes much slower. But most of us accept women doing it all now.

        GOP: The Party of Acid rain, Abortion of the American Dream, and Amnesty for Wall Street.

        by Attorney at Arms on Thu Aug 18, 2011 at 10:46:38 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  might have been 17 years -- don't remember (0+ / 0-)

          As for the sexism, I agree about the Orthodox, but what I was commenting about was being taught by Orthodox men 40+ years ago that women weren't forbidden from taking part in Torah reading and other religious duties, they were just excused from having to participate.
          And yet, custom turned it into being forbidden.

          If, in our efforts to win, we become as dishonest as our opponents on the right, we don't deserve to triumph.

          by Tamar on Thu Aug 18, 2011 at 11:25:09 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  I would never have guessed (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Tamar, sberel, Navy Vet Terp

    this was a first attempt.

    The word you translate as proselyte is usually translated as stranger - for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.  Jews who try to justify Israel's treatment of the Palestinians have used the word to mean converts.  I think this translation makes no sense.  The Jews were not converts in the land of Egypt.  Rather, we are told to remember that when we were strangers we were treated harshly, and that therefore, we should be kind to strangers in our own land.  This commandment is repeated more often in Torah than any other, including the Sabbath.

    We have been treated harshly in other places since Egypt.  That does not justify us in mistreating others now that we have our own nation.  This is Hillel's formulation - that which is hateful to you, do not do to another.

    When shit happens, you get fertilized.

    by ramara on Wed Aug 17, 2011 at 02:49:24 PM PDT

    •  Thanks! I wondered about the word "proselyte" (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      sberel, ramara

      The commentary in my Chumash very clearly characterized it as "convert," yet I drew the same conclusion you did that talking about converts and then the status of Jews in Egypt made no sense.
      Maybe I need a different Chumash.  Any recommendations?

      If, in our efforts to win, we become as dishonest as our opponents on the right, we don't deserve to triumph.

      by Tamar on Wed Aug 17, 2011 at 02:55:43 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Recommendation for Chumash (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Tamar, ramara, slksfca

        Etz Hayim, published by the Rabbinical Assembly (Conservative) although I personally think the translation can be a bit dull.  For sheer beauty, I actually like the King James.

        The Talmud states that the commandment to love the stranger appears 36, or 46 times in the Torah (even the rabbis weren't sure).  This to me is very moving and powerful and beautiful, but it all goes to naught when we limit this commandment to converts.  The ultra-Orthodox, who preach that we Jews have no obligation to non-Jews, preach this, but we should reject their misinterpretation of the text.  

        "We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals, now we know that it is bad economics." Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jan. 20, 1937

        by Navy Vet Terp on Wed Aug 17, 2011 at 04:49:32 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  while I was brought up Conservative and many of (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Navy Vet Terp, ramara

          my relatives were Orthodox, the level of religion I experienced never approached the level of lunacy we see now.  Things like treating strangers with kindness were standard views among the people I knew.  Until I met my college boyfriend's brother.  
          Although his family was Orthodox, it wasn't enough for him and he ran away to New York to become more Orthodox.  My boyfriend took me to visit his family around the time of the riots following MLK's assassination.  I was introduced to his brother who proceeded to tell me he had a solution to the rioting:  "go to those neighborhoods, line up all the men, and shoot every 10th one."
          I was floored because I had never met a Jew with those sorts of views.  But now it makes sense to me -- he is of the variety that if you're not Jewish, you're not worth anything.  

          If, in our efforts to win, we become as dishonest as our opponents on the right, we don't deserve to triumph.

          by Tamar on Wed Aug 17, 2011 at 05:17:59 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

        •  I agree with you (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          about both Etz Hayim and the King James.  I argue about the KJ all the time, with friends who say that the language should be updated and inaccuracies corrected.  I say it's like Shakespeare - sheer poetry.

          Tamar, another wonderful source is the Jewish Study Bible, which is the same translation as Etz Hayim, but with fascinating notes, essays, maps, etc.

          When shit happens, you get fertilized.

          by ramara on Wed Aug 17, 2011 at 06:28:32 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

        •  I was told in high school, I believe, that (0+ / 0-)

          the reference to witches used as a basis to burn witches in places like Salem came from a mistranslation in the King James version of the Old Testament.  I once asked our rabbi about that, and he knew nothing about it -- so don't know if it's true or not, but it made me steer away from the KJ translation.  

          If, in our efforts to win, we become as dishonest as our opponents on the right, we don't deserve to triumph.

          by Tamar on Thu Aug 18, 2011 at 05:21:22 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

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