Posts Tagged ‘Deuteronomy’

Parshat Eikev

August 10, 2020

For the past couple of years, I’ve been taking part in my synagogue’s weekly Torah study group. We read the weekly parshah—portion of Torah—and discuss it. After the group discussion, one person delivers a short talk on the week’s portion. This past week it was my turn to speak about the portion called Eikev, which covers Deuteronomy 7:12 to 11:25.

(The book of Deuteronomy, the last of the five books of Torah, consists of Moses’ instructions to the Israelites as they prepare to enter the Promised Land without him, after 40 years in the desert.)

After writing and sharing my Eikev comments, it occurred to me that they might also be of interest to some of my blog followers. If that’s you, here you go! And if you’re not interested, please skip this. Either way, have a good week, stay masked, and stay healthy.

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This week’s Torah portion, Eikev, along with last week’s portion, are the source of much of the language of the Shema, the most important prayer in Judaism. But while we in Reform Judaism include the language from last week’s portion in our recitation of the shma, our prayerbooks don’t include the language from Eikev.

Because I’m always interested in the source and evolution of our rituals, I’m going to talk about the origins of the Shema, what the different sections of the­ Shema say, why Reform Judaism dropped the wording that came from Eikev, and what Eikev tells us about divine reward and punishment. 

I suspect the history of the shema may be old hat to some of you, but it will be new to others of us, so please bear with me if some of this feels familiar.

You all probably know the first two lines of the shema by heart: Shema Yisrael, adonai eloheinu, adonai echad. Baruch shem k’vod malchuto, l’olam va’ed. 

We say these lines every Shabbat when we take the Torah from the ark, as well as at the climax of Yom Kippur services; if we were Orthodox Jews, we would say them twice daily in morning and evening prayers. They are supposed to be the last words we speak before death, and throughout history Jewish martyrs have died with the shema on their lips.

The first line comes from last week’s Torah portion, Deuteronomy 6:4. It is often translated as Hear, o Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is one. But it can also be translated as Hear, O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai alone. How you choose to translate it makes for a subtle but meaningful difference – one of them emphasizes the unified nature of God, while the other emphasizes that we worship only one God. Take a moment and think about which translate resonates and is more meaningful for you – or perhaps a combination of both of them: Adonai is my God, Adonai is one. Or: Adonai is my God, Adonai alone.

That line was recited by the priests in the days of the Temple, and the assembled worshippers answered back with the second line: Baruch shem k’vod malchuto, l’olam va’ed. Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom for ever and ever. That line is the only one in the shema that doesn’t come from Torah, which may be why we recite it quietly. 

Since it’s not from the Torah, it’s not clear where that second line came from. The Talmud makes up a story about Jacob and his sons to explain its origins: On his deathbed, Jacob was worried that his sons might stray and worship other gods, so he asked them about their beliefs, and they said Shma Yisrael adonai eloheinu, adonai echad. And Jacob was relieved and responded, Baruch shem k’vod malchuto, l’olam va’ed.

Jacob and his sons

That second line evolved historically, though. At one point in ancient times, it was simply Baruch shem kvod olam, Blessed be his glorious name forever, which was the response whenever the name of God was mentioned. The phrase malchutohis kingdom, was added during Roman times to emphasize that God, not Rome, was the true ruler. The phrase va’ed, emphasizing eternity, was added during the Second Temple period to counter the view of some Jews that there was no life after death. So that second line evolved to meet the political and cultural challenges of the day – changing from Blessed be his glorious name forever to Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom for ever and ever.

But back to our Torah portion, Eikev, and its role in the shema. So far we’ve talked about the opening two lines, which is what we commonly think of as the shema.  But the full shema actually includes an additional three long paragraphs, two from Deuteronomy and one from Numbers.

The first paragraph is what we recite as the Ve’ahavta. It comes from last week’s Torah portion, Deuteronomy 6:5-9. 

And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be upon thy heart; and thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thy house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thy hand, and they shall be for frontlets between thine eyes. And thou shalt write them upon the door posts of thy house, and upon thy gates. 

The second paragraph is from Eikev, and we Reform Jews don’t recite it. It’s Deuteronomy 11:13-21, if any of you want to follow along. I’ll read it. 

If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving Adonai your God and serving God with all your heart and soul, I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late. You shall gather in your new grain and wine and oil— I will also provide grass in the fields for your cattle—and thus you shall eat your fill. Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and bow to them. For God’s anger will flare up against you, and God will shut up the skies so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce; and you will soon perish from the good land that God is assigning to you. Therefore 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 at 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 on your gates— to the end that you and your children may endure, in the land that God swore to your fathers to assign to them, as long as there is a heaven over the earth.

This second section of the shema repeats some elements of the first paragraph, such as the injunction to take God’s words into our hearts, and teach our children, and recite them when we get up and when we lie down, and inscribe them on the doorposts of our house and on the gates.

But what it also has – which makes up a central part of the Eikev portion – is a system of material rewards and punishments for our religious behavior. If we are good, then God will make it rain for our crops and give us enough food. If we are bad, God will cause drought and we will be killed or exiled. 

Worship idols, suffer from drought? / Photo by CSIRO

The 19th century Reform movement was uncomfortable with this, for reasons that make a lot of sense to me. We live in an era of science, where we understand that droughts and crop failures are due to weather patterns like El Nino, not whether we have been worshipping idols. In addition, we have seen enough injustice – the Holocaust is only the most obvious example – to know that bad things happen to even the most pious and virtuous people. 

Rabbi Audrey Korotkin wrote, “We Reform Jews have trouble praying what we do not believe. And our experience tells us not to believe in Deuteronomic theology.”

So the Reform movement kept the commandments in the shema but removed the promises of material bliss for the virtuous and the threats of death and destruction for sinners.

Our Reform predecessors may have updated the shema, but we still face this dilemma when reading Eikev and Deuteronomy.

Moses tells us that if we obey the rules, God will multiply us, bless the issue from our wombs and the produce of our grain and wine and oil, our calves and lambs. God will ward off sickness and infertility, and will inflict diseases on our enemies. But if we follow other gods or intermarry with other peoples, God will wipe us out. 

What are we to make of this? I can’t believe that God rewards the virtuous with material wealth and health. There are so many instances of mass injustice that wiped out both the pious and impious, from the Holocaust to American slavery to the genocide of native American peoples. On an individual level, all of us know good people who have died untimely deaths or faced terrible traumas or financial reversals. My mother would have died of ovarian cancer at age 54 even if she were the most devout Lubavitcher. 

I also can’t respect any religion that in today’s world relies on supernatural threats to get people to comply with moral teachings. Preschoolers may need the threat of a time-out to learn to share their toys, but I believe adults should do the right thing because it is right, not because God will give us bountiful herds of cattle or a FedEx box full of bitcoins.

It is possible to step back from the actual words and take these kinds of rewards and punishments on a symbolic level. We can interpret it as, “A society that treats people morally and ethically will flourish.” Or on an environmental level, “If we aren’t careful stewards of the land, the land will cease to be fruitful.” 

Another way to look at these rewards and threats is to consider whether they are coming from God or from Moses. Here is Moses, nearing the end of his life, knowing the Israelites will continue into the promised land without him, wanting them to succeed but also knowing how easily they backslide into idolatry and nostalgia for Egypt. Maybe he doesn’t know how they will manage without him. Maybe he’s worried that they will fail. He’s wracking his brain trying to figure out what he can say that will persuade them – over a future of years, decades, centuries – to fulfill the commandments he delivered from God. Desperate, he turns to wild promises – follow the commandments and you’ll never get sick! You’ll be rich! Your enemies will perish! as well as threats of destruction. In that case, the warnings of material reward and punishment are Moses’s, not God’s.

But those are rationalizations – my effort as a liberal, science-based 21st century Jew to find a way to live with yet another part of the Torah that I can’t accept on its face value.

I don’t have an answer here, so I’m going to leave you with some open-ended questions. 

How do you feel about a theology of material rewards and punishments by God? 

Do you think God materially punishes those who don’t obey the commandments, and rewards those who do? 

Do you think rewards and punishments are good reasons to follow the commandments? 

And if not – and say you were in Moses’s shoes, delivering a farewell address to a stiff-necked people who have backslid over and over — what arguments would you make to convince them to follow the moral and ethical commandments laid out by a distant God?

Shabbat shalom. Have a good week. Stay masked, stay safe, stay hopeful.

Nitzavim and Yom Kippur

October 5, 2011

The traditional Torah reading for Yom Kippur morning is a section from Leviticus that involves the details of ritual sacrifice at the Temple in Jerusalem. But the 19th century pioneers of Reform Judaism felt this was irrelevant to modern life and humanistic religion, and substituted a different passage — Nitzavim, or Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20.

This is the passage that I’ll be chanting on Saturday morning. (Well, the first part of it — Deuteronomy 29:9 through 29:14.)

Moses would have given his farewell address near here - view of Dead Sea from Mt. Nebo (Jordan) / Photo by David Bjorgen

Nitzavim presents Moses’ farewell address to the Jewish people, as he readies them to enter the promised land without him. He reminds everyone gathered before him that they have entered into a covenant with God. He recounts the “detestable things” and “fetishes” they left behind in Egypt, and predicts that some of them will succumb to the temptations of idolatry, thinking “I shall be safe, though I follow my own willful heart.” He warns them that they will be punished and exiled — but if they repent and return to following the mitzvot, God will welcome them back and return them to prosperity.

I suspect there’s some historical backstory here — that this section of the Torah was written at a time when the Jews were returning from exile in Babylon, and the author may have intended to explain the exile and exhort the people to better behavior. I haven’t done the research on this, so please jump in and correct or amplify if you know more.

But historical analysis aside, it’s a fitting portion for Yom Kippur in its focus on the dangers of sin and the rewards of teshuvah (which translates as turning, or repentance). And the image of  Moses speaking before the entire community of Israel — old and young, the portion tells us, men and women, officials and strangers, even the humble wood-hewers and water-drawers — is appropriate for the only day of the year when every single member of a Jewish congregation shows up for services.

There are two parts of the portion that I find particularly moving.

The first is a line that I’ll be chanting, where Moses tells the assembled multitude that the covenant is “not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here this day.”

It feels almost like science fiction, some wormhole or rip in time that allows Moses to speak simultaneously to all Jews through the centuries. The covenant includes those not present because they have died, and those not present because they are not yet born. It gives me a shivery transcendent feeling — I’m part of this stream that extends back to Abraham and forward as long as there is a Judaism.

My grandparents who have passed away are part of it. The great-great-great-grandparents whose names I don’t even know are part of it. My daughter’s unimaginable grandchildren are part of it.  For a moment we are all here together, standing near Mt. Nebo listening to Moses.

The other line I particularly like comes later in the portion, when Moses reassures the gathered populace that they can, in fact, fulfill their end of the covenant.

Surely, this instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.

I find this a  comforting way to think about other challenges, not just the challenge of leading a moral and righteous life.

It’s so easy to paralyze ourselves by thinking, “That’s too much! I can never do that!” These days I’m having those kinds of despairing thoughts about the ten extra pounds I’ve put on: “How will I ever be able to lose that weight?” And those thoughts are a constant presence around my novel writing: “I’ll never be able to get that character right! I’ll never do decent dialogue! I’ll never be able to write like XXX or YYY!”

But in reality, a surprising number of the things that cause us despair are not beyond us. They are not in the heavens, they are not across the ocean. Sometimes we just need to calm ourselves down — take things step by step, piece by piece, or, in Anne Lamott’s phrase, bird by bird.

It is not too baffling for us, it is not beyond reach. The answers are close to us, in our mouths and hearts.