Friday, August 19, 2022

Parashat Eikev: Are Jews really better than everyone else?

Happy Friday! I am happy to say these words are coming to you from the comfort of Machane Yehuda, aka the shuk, in Jerusalem, Israel, Planet Earth. Let's dive in. 

This week's Torah portion (aka parashah) is Eikev, which I've written about quite a few times before (including here and here). There are so many compelling events in this week's portion! This portion comprises Devarim/Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25 and includes Moshe's final words to the Israelites and retells the infamous story of the Golden Calf. 

Are the Jews better than everyone else? 

It also includes a verse often cited as troublesome for how the world thinks Jews understand themselves in the expanse of humanity. In Deut. 7:14, the Torah says

ברוך תהיה מכל העמים

Baruch t'hiyeh m'kol ha'amim. 

This often translates as "You will be blessed above all people." This is just one of the places where the antiSemitic trope that Jews believe they're better than everyone else comes from. But that's a mistranslation. There is so much nuance with translation, and this translation misses the mark. The Hebrew uses a mem (מ), which means "from" not "above." Mem is a comparative preposition, and when you compare two things, you're setting them apart from one another. 

The better translation here is "You will be blessed when compared to all people." It's an indicator of a different status of blessing, not a status of being above or better than others. And it makes sense. Jews are viewed by the world as distinct, separate from. Even the most non-religious Jews are still considered as different and separate. This was the blessing from HaShem. 

You can embrace that blessing of difference and celebrate it or view it as a negative and something to fight or battle against. 

What's the deal with the different versions of the Golden Calf story?

Later, the parashah retells the sin of the Golden Calf but changes up a major portion of the story, which makes me wonder. If you recall, the scene here is that Moshe went up on the mount to get the Torah from HaShem. He was gone "too long" for the people, so they panicked and fell back on their old "we need an intermediary to check in with HaShem and see what's doing with Moshe" ways. Thus, they built a calf (not to worship, but to serve as an intermediary to their Gd). 

In Deut. 9:21, Moshe says:

"As for that sinful thing you had made, the calf, I took it and put it to the fire; I broke it to bits and ground it thoroughly until it was fine as dust, and I threw its dust into the brook that comes down from the mountain."

But in the original incident in Exodus 32:20, it says:

"He took the calf that they had made and burned it; he ground it to powder and strewed it upon the water and so made the Israelites drink it."

What's missing? The people drinking the water, of course. Why isn't this brought up in this week's portion? 

Ramban says it's because Moshe didn't want to humiliate them, but that doesn't seem to track. This entire portion is an extensive reminder of how the Israelites screwed up. Ramban also says he doesn't want to tell the people because he doesn't want them to know that he did to them what is done to wives accused of adultery. After all, Israel did cheat on HaShem, right? Sort of, anyway.

Okay, stop. Wait. What? Yes, when a woman is accused of adultery, she's forced to let down her hair and drink some sketchy water. In Numbers 5:17:

"And the priest shall take holy water in an earthen vessel; and of the dust that is on the floor of the tabernacle the priest shall take, and put it into the water."

So is what Moshe did in Exodus and what happened to an accused adulteress the same thing? The former involves burning something and putting the ashes into water. The latter involves some dust from the floor, which could be some ash mixed in with general dirt. The Hebrew word is the same in Deuteronomy and Numbers, but the version in Exodus doesn't use the word for dust/dirt or ash. But the two don't appear to be the same. Even if the ash on the tabernacle floor was from a sacrifice, those sacrifices are out of holiness. The burning of the calf has nothing to do with anything holy. 

All of that to say I don't buy the Ramban's perspective here. But when something in one place in the Torah doesn't match something in another place in the Torah, we have to explain it, right? 

The reality here is that the drinking that is explicitly called out in Exodus is merely implied in Deuteronomy. One can safely assume that there was a single source of water where the Israelites were camped. When Moshe says, "I threw its dust into the brook that comes down from the mountain" the implication is that the people were drinking out of this brook whether they wanted to or not. 

And that concludes this week's thoughts on Eikev. There are a bunch of other interesting sections in this portion, including gobs of talk about conquering and possessing the land, but I've covered that in previous years pretty thoroughly. Until next week ... Shabbat Shalom!