Ekev 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ekev

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

Ekev (Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25)

OVERVIEW

Moshe continues to exhort the people not to forget God’s wonders and God’s Torah when they enter the land. The theology of the book of Deuteronomy seems straightforward: if the Israelites follow the Torah, God will reward them with blessings in the land, and drive out their enemies. Moshe also reviews some of the earlier incidents when Israel was rebellious, including the Golden Calf and the making of second tablets. The parsha concludes with a passage which constitutes the second paragraph (for many communities) of the Shema; this paragraph reiterates the connection between piety and receiving God’s blessing.

IN FOCUS

“After Adonai your God has driven them out before you, do not say to yourself, “Adonai has brought me here to take possession of this land because of my righteousness.”

No, it is on account of the wickedness of these nations that Adonai is going to drive them out before you. It is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going in to take possession of their land; but on account of the wickedness of these nations, Adonai your God will drive them out before you, to accomplish what he swore to your ancestors, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Understand, then, that it is not because of your righteousness that Adonai your God is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stiff-necked people. ” (Deuteronomy 9:4-6)

PSHAT

Moshe is preparing the Israelites for the end of their journey in the wilderness. Before they cross the river into the Land of Israel, Moshe stresses that it will be God Who helps them possess the land- not because they do deserve it, but because the nations that live there do not deserve it, and it had also been promised to the Israelite’s ancestors. The larger theme is humble faithfulness to God’s covenant, even after they have achieved all their goals and dwell as a nation in their own land.

DRASH

The noted Bible scholar Richard Elliott Friedman has just released a new commentary on the entire Torah, which is an exciting new addition to the contemporary library of Torah scholarship. In fact, we’ll refer to this new commentary next week, too, so that Kolel students can get a feel for Friedman’s methodology. Very briefly, Friedman wants to follow in the tradition of Rashi and the other great medieval commentators, by closely reading the text itself for subtle hints as to meaning, while at the same time contextualizing all close readings with the insights of modern scholarship, including history, archaeology, comparative religion, philology, and so on.

Thus, Friedman points out and explores the apparent repetition in the verses above:

    The point is made three times, in three verses in row: it is not because of your virtue that but rather because of these nation’s wickedness. Some think that the repetition is just a scribe’s error, repeating a line by mistake. (Such errors are known as dittography.) That is possible, but the repetition itself is not sufficient reason to make that conclusion. On the contrary, the text seems to me precisely to be making the point as emphatically as possible. Moses notes the people’s own lack of virtue even more strongly in the next verse (7), and he begins with the words “Remember- don’t forget!” which is redundant as well but is certainly done on purpose for emphasis.

    And he then goes on for the rest of the chapter listing the people’s record of rebellions. Moses thus gives a powerful warning against chauvinism and self-congratulation. And this also provides a profound balance to the declaration that Israel was chosen to become a treasured people, which came just two chapters earlier (7:6). Possession of the land is result of a promise to Israel’s ancestors. Status as a treasured people depends on actions: faithfulness to the covenant. Israel is not intrinsically better than anyone. What is special about Israel is rather that it has been given a singular opportunity to follow a path that will ultimately bring blessing to all the families of the earth.

Friedman not only explains the literary aspects of the text, but shows how one must understand how the text works before one can understand what the text is trying to say. In this case, their is a threefold repetition of the idea that the Israelites are not inheriting the land on their own merits; this drives home the point that to be “chosen” is not some kind of magical, intrinsic quality, but is rather dependent on moral and spiritual commitment.

Friedman wants to show that the Bible itself endorses a very conditional, action-oriented idea of “chosenness.” Most people living in contemporary democracies resist, and rightly so, the idea that one set of people is inherently better than another. This conditional idea of “the chosen people” says simply that Jews have been chosen for Torah and mitzvot, and if they rise to the challenge, there will be blessings for everybody. This does not, in my mind, preclude the possibility that other nations and peoples have been “chosen” for their own unique missions in the world.

Finally, I would point out that our passage strongly emphasizes the humility required of any person or nation inheriting God’s blessing. Not only does this humility counterbalance any distortions to the idea of being a “treasured people” (if we stay committed to covenant), but it also deflates any egotistical pretensions that the present generation is somehow better or historically unique. The text says: be very grateful for the gifts in your life, because you might not have received them in this way. Being “chosen” doesn’t mean being special ourselves- it means having a special opportunity to do good for the world.

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