Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Thoughts on Parshah Eikev

I really like reading and writing about the weekly Torah portion, or parshah, but I know that it isn't a highly read thing here on the blog. I'm here to cater to my readers, but sometimes I just have to get some thoughts down on the page and hope someone appreciates them. No guilt or anything, of course, but I have some thoughts about this week's parshah, Eikev.

Eikev comprises Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25 and is a continuation of Moshe's final words to the Israelites in which he implores them to follow the word of HaShem and he reminds them of all of those ... missteps ... that they're so well known for, the Golden Calf incident among them.

In Deut. 7:14, it says
ברוך תהיה מכל העמים

Most would probably use this line as proof, especially with the English translation, that Jews view themselves as greater, holier, more special than other people. The English translation often reads "You will be blessed above all people." The Hebrew uses the preposition min (מן or -מ), which means "from." It's a comparative preposition, and it would be used to say "I am smarter than him" (אני יותר חכמה ממנו). A literal translation would be "I am more smart from him," but that's how Hebrew works. When you're comparing two things, you're setting them apart. Something is XXX from XXX.

Thus, this specific phrase from the parshah, which is found in a million other places in the Torah actually means that HaShem has made us different from other nations. Different, separate, unique. Remember that when you're eating a big plate of bacon with all of your non-Jewish friends. (I'm only half-joking here.) Is our uniqueness granted by HaShem inherent? Or must we act different?

In Deut. 9:9, Moshe tells the Israelites that he "neither ate bread nor drank water" during his 40 days and nights atop the mount in the desert when he was obtaining the commands from HaShem. Oddly enough, earlier, in Deut. 8:3, we read the following:
And He afflicted you and let you go hungry, and then fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your forefathers know, so that He would make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but rather by, whatever comes forth from the mouth of the Lord does man live.
וַיְעַנְּךָ וַיַּרְעִבֶךָ וַיַּאֲכִלְךָ אֶת הַמָּן אֲשֶׁר לֹא יָדַעְתָּ וְלֹא יָדְעוּן אֲבֹתֶיךָ לְמַעַן הוֹדִעֲךָ כִּי לֹא עַל הַלֶּחֶם לְבַדּוֹ יִחְיֶה הָאָדָם כִּי עַל כָּל מוֹצָא פִי יְי יִחְיֶה הָאָדָם:
Bazinga! Intentional or not, there's a juxtaposition with a point here. Moshe knew that man does not live by bread alone, so his hunger upon the mount was met with the words of HaShem, and that was enough. I suppose this is a powerful lesson for those of us that struggle with food, eh?

Later on in Deut. 9 I find it odd that the retelling of the Golden Calf incident from Ki Tisa doesn't mention an important aspect of the narrative. When Moshe descends the mount and finds out what has happened, the Golden Calf is burned and its ashes are spread into the water that trickles down from the mountain. In Ki Tisa, the people are then required to drink the concoction of ashes and water, but in Eikev, there's no mention of this ritual. I find it interesting simply because this very ritual of ashes and water was a very common one in the Ancient Near East, which makes me wonder if when the writing of Deuteronomy was going on the ritual was taboo among the Israelites. (I've written about the Golden Calf a lot in the past.)

There's also a lot of talk in this parshah about going to "possess" the land that HaShem as given our forefathers. It makes me jealous of those who've been able to make aliyah (or moving to Israel) a real, tangible thing. And maybe what that nagging empty feeling that really strikes me at random intervals is. All I can say for now is, in time. Ultimately I'll be in Israel, I just don't know when. HaShem promised it to my -- OUR -- forefathers, so it's only right that we should make it happen. It's not a "maybe," it's a "must be."

And, of course, I would be remiss to not mention the following phrase from Deut. 10:19 to love the ger or stranger in your midst.
ואהבתם את הגר בי גרים הייתם בארץ מצרים

I hate to argue that this doesn't mean convert, because I know that later, in the Talmud, anything related to ger is referred to as meaning convert. In the Ancient Near East, people did float from religious entity to religious entity quite freely, but I don't know how actually prevalent it was for one to truly "join" the Israelites. It is possible that there were those who lived among the Israelites out of admiration or a sense of justice, and it likely was a situation much like today in Israel where refugees flee because of this very sentiment -- love the strangers in your midst, don't shun them or treat them poorly because you know what that felt like once upon a time. The theory is that Jews do so well no matter where they are because they know what it's like to be the minority. Thus, the assumption is that we tend to be a little more forgiving to those unlike us because we know how it feels to be the odd man out.

But the way the parshah ends has me a little unsettled. From Deut. 11:22-25:
For if you keep all of these mitzvot that I command you to do, to love HaShem, to walk in all His ways, and to cleave to Him, then HaShem will drive out all of these nations from before you and you will possess nations greater and stronger than you. Every place upon which the soles of your feet will tread will be yours: from the desert and Lebanon, from the river, the Euphrates, and until the western sea, will be your boundary.
No man will stand up before you: the Lord your G-d will cast the fear of you and the dread of you on all the land upon which you tread, as He has spoken to you.
This sort of makes it sound like we're going to be some big scary force that the rest of the nations cower before, and I'm not sure I like the sound of that. There's no real "how" for this, and that also has me worried. And the word "possess" ...? Of course, I'm thinking of the physical, when perhaps HaShem really means possess in terms of possessing respect and acknowledgement. The verb is לרשת, which translates to inherit or succeed, so I suppose it's pretty clear that it's a physical take-over or succession.

But now I wonder ... back then, nations were small, nations were made up of peoples sharing a similar geographic boundary. Nations aren't like what we have today. The boundaries are clear in this portion, so perhaps, then, the claim has been satisfied -- almost. Maybe it doesn't mean world domination, but simply geographic domination over the specific land area that HaShem gave our forefathers. Does this mean we're just that much closer to redemption? It does say "HaShem will cast the fear of you and the dread of you on all the land upon which you tread," so perhaps it does intend something bigger, something greater, something more massive than the geographic boundaries of Eretz Yisrael. However, maybe that bigger, greater thing isn't domination in the sense of politics or military but rather a domination as I mentioned before -- one of the heart and mind, one of respect and acknowledgement.

Perhaps HaShem meant for us to have Eretz Yisrael, but perhaps he also meant for us to have the hearts and minds of the rest of the world. The children of Israel, set apart from all other people yet loving and caring for those unlike ourselves. Perhaps HaShem expected us to fight for mutual respect.