Friday, August 22, 2008

Parshah Eikev and my Jewish birthday!

That was my fortune today with my orange/sweet and sour chicken from Panda Express. So here I am, sitting outside attempting to make friends with other students in the little quad area of the graduate housing complex. I suppose that's a start, eh?

I sat down last night and read this week's Torah portion, as well as some more in Rabbi Marc D. Angel's new novel The Search Committee. I also somehow stumbled upon's nifty Jewish birthday calculator. In fact, I think it's pretty awesome that my Jewish birthday is 23 Tishrei, and the Torah portion is Bereishit -- the first parshah of the Jewish year! And my "normal" calendar birthday, September 30, is the first day of Rosh Hashanah this year. That's new beginnings, fresh starts, like a rebirth of sorts, and I think that's so appropriate considering my path and how I got here and where I've ended up.Throw that into how I'm starting a new leg to my journey in life and wow, beautiful happenstance all around.

So a few words on this week's portion, Eikev, which is Deut. 7:12-11:25. Right off the bat, Moses is saying that only if the Israelites heed the commandments and laws of G-d will they really be taken care of.
And it will be, because you will heed these ordinances and keep them and perform, that the Lord, your God, will keep for you the covenant and the kindness that He swore to your forefathers. (7:12)
But then, Moses says:
Do not say to yourself, when the Lord, your God, has repelled them from before you, saying, "Because of my righteousness, the Lord has brought me to possess this land," and [that] because of the wickedness of these nations, the Lord drives them out from before you. Not because of your righteousness or because of the honesty of your heart, do you come to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations, the Lord your God drives them out from before you, and in order to establish the matter that the Lord swore to your forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. You shall know that, not because of your righteousness, the Lord, your God, gives you this land to possess it; for you are a stiffnecked people. (9:4-6)
So my beefs here are as follows. The parshah starts out essentially by saying that G-d will only grant kindness if we do EXACTLY as he commands. This implies a cause-effect relationship: you do bad, G-d punishes, you do good, G-d bestows kindness. Of course, this is problematic in a pluralistic Jewish society and it definitely gives weight to those who follow the commandments completely and utterly strictly, with no room for evolution or interpretation, and unless the commandments are followed most precisely, then of course there will be no kindness. This is equally powerful for those who suggest that the reason Israel has not been fully returned is because we have not followed the commandments to perfection. It "proves" that this is all just punishment, right? This is problematic, and I'm not sure how to resolve it. 

But then in the second set of text we see that G-d isn't repelling our enemies because of our good and accurate following of the commandments and laws, but rather because they are wicked. So if G-d intends to drive them out because of their own wickedness, what is the point of following the commandments? If the land becomes ours because of the faults of others, then do we really need to follow the laws? Of course there is a lot more that comes out of following the mitzvot than merely the acquisition of land. 

Of course, then there's "For the Lord, your God, is God of gods and the Lord of the lords, the great mighty and awesome God, Who will show no favor, nor will He take a bribe" (10:17), which sort of contradicts the whole "chosen" people idea that we are to be a light unto the nations, perhaps a holier nation than others so that we can lead by example. Of course, I'm not saying here that the Jewish nation is "better" than other nations, because that's the oft quoted bit about why people don't like Jews, because we think we're "better" than others because of the notion of being a chosen nation. But in reality, it does suggest that the Jewish nation is favored as being an example to other nations. It doesn't imply better, just different, but still it suggests a certain amount of favorability.

But in truth, this entire parshah is a reminder to us that we are an obnoxious, hard to please, frustrating group of people who need to climb off our high horse and see what good might befall us should we opt to follow the commandments and do our part to look into the WHY of the commandments that G-d placed upon us. I'm a firm believer that history repeats, repeats, repeats. People never really change, and we all tend toward making the same mistakes of our forebears. The scenery might change, there might be more technology, buildings are bigger and business is bigger and our clothes are finer, but in reality, the human mind continues to function in the ways it has in the past. In this, I mean, that the commandments of yore are still applicable today. We just have to figure out how to adjust our lives to fit the commandments and not the other way around. 

We are a stiffnecked people, indeed, so let's figure it out.