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.