Category Archives: Ekev

The Point of the Land of Israel (Ekev)

The Point of the Land of Israel (Ekev)

Every great person has first learned how to obey, whom to obey, and when to obey. -William Arthur Ward

The Torah repeatedly declares the primacy of the Land of Israel. The whole purpose of the Exodus from Egypt was to bring the Jewish nation to that land “flowing with milk and honey.” The Land of Israel is an inheritance to the Children of Israel, from the days of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The whole focus, the whole goal of Israel’s journey through the desert is to eventually get to the Promised Land. The entire book of Deuteronomy revolves around preparing the people for their entry into the land.

Therefore, it may seem counterintuitive and even shocking, that with such definitive historical, legal, and textual centrality that the Land of Israel has for the people of Israel, that the connection between land and people is conditional.

Deuteronomy 8:1 states:

“You shall faithfully observe all the Instruction that I enjoin upon you today, that you may thrive and increase and be able to possess the land that the Lord promised on oath to your fathers.”

The Meshech Chochma on that verse reads the statement as conditional. If you observe the commandments, then you will possess the land. If you don’t observe the commandments, you won’t possess the land. This is not an original statement, as the Torah in various places states this unequivocally. Not only will we not possess the land, but we will be kicked out of the land for lack of obeying God’s laws.

What is noteworthy about the Meshech Chochma’s analysis is his statement that not only will we not possess the land if we don’t follow God’s directives, but that the entire purpose, the entire reason why the Children of Israel were given the Land of Israel, was exclusively to follow God’s commands. Once we stop following God’s commands our very reason for having the land disappears. That deal is nullified, broken, revoked.

The Meshech Chochma takes this understanding a step further. One might have thought that if the deal of possession of the land is void, then all of the “strings,” all of the responsibilities and commandments which were placed on Israel would likewise be voided, that we would be absolved of further wrongdoing. However, that conclusion would be wrong, especially in the area of idol worship. We are still liable. The covenant is not broken, despite our “treason.” God holds us accountable regarding His commandments, even if we don’t think we are.

The Meshech Chochma brings as proof the fact that the prior inhabitants of Israel were expelled, in part, because of their idolatrous practices, and all of humanity, since the time of Noah, had already been warned and commanded to refrain from idolatry.

May we become worthy of possessing the land of Israel.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the 15th of Av, one of the happiest days of the year in ancient times.

Appropriate Pride (Ekev)

Appropriate Pride (Ekev)

If one takes pride in one’s craft, you won’t let a good thing die. Risking it through not pushing hard enough is not a humility. -Paul Keating

In the Torah reading of Ekev, Moses asks rhetorically, “What does God want from you?” He answers, “Only this: to revere God your God, to walk only in His paths, to love Him, and to serve God your God with all your heart and soul, keeping God’s commandments and laws, which I command you today, for your good.” – Deuteronomy 10:12-13.

That’s it. That’s all God asks. The commentators spend a lot of time analyzing this verse, understanding the phrase “Only this,” and is it really as easy as that, or is it only easy from the perspective of Moses, who had a unique closeness and relationship with God?

Moses’ question is reminiscent of a different rhetorical question by the prophet Micah: “He has told you, O man, what is good, and what does God require of you? Only to do justice and to love goodness, and to walk modestly with your God.” – Micah 6:8

The Berdichever takes his commentary on Moses’ question in the direction of the principle of humility and being humble in all our ways and actions. He reiterates the prime importance of a humble bearing, of being humble in our lives. But he adds a caveat. There is one exception. There is one area of life where we cannot be humble. Indeed, we are meant to pursue that aspect of our lives with an appropriate measure of pride: In our service of God. In our service of God we cannot remain humble. We are allowed and even enjoined to be proud of our divine service.

The Berdichever brings two reasons for the importance of having pride in our fulfillment of the commandments: it’s what God wants, and it gives God pleasure.

Were we to demonstrate humility regarding our performance of the commandments, it would in essence be declaring that they’re not important – and there is nothing further from the truth.

Our performance of the commandments is of prime, vital importance and when we do so, we give tremendous pleasure to God. We need to know when and in what circumstance we should demonstrate pride and pursue things with pride. The Mitzvot, the commandments, are the place.

May our pride be reserved for the truly good things that we do.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Major Moshe, Rivka, Tamar, Batsheva and Yudi. Thanks for the wonderful hosting!

Three Powers of Prayer (Ekev)

Three Powers of Prayer (Ekev)

Prayer is the slender nerve that moves the muscle of omnipotence. -Martin Tupper

Moses, in his final days with the nation of Israel, gives them what is in essence his God-mandated Last Will and Testament. In this week’s reading we have what has become the second paragraph of the biblically-prescribed Shma prayer. The very first verse of that paragraph enjoins us to serve God with “all of our heart.”

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Deuteronomy 11:13 (Ekev) explains that to serve God with all of our heart is nothing other than prayer. He further elaborates that there are three particular powers to prayer. Prayer has the power to change nature. Prayer has the power to save one from danger. And prayer has the power to annul negative divine decrees. Rabbeinu Bechaye gives a biblical example for each:

  1. Changes nature: When Isaac prayed for his wife Rebecca to bear a child, his prayer changed her physical condition which had made it previously impossible for her to have a child.
  2. Saves from danger: He gives an example from Psalms (Chapter 107) which describes various travails, including sailors in a tempest, who cry out to God, and God subsequently replaces the tempest with tranquil waters.
  3. Annuls decrees: King Hezekiah (Book of Isaiah, Chapter 38) becomes fatally ill. The prophet Isaiah brings word from God that Hezekiah has been decreed to die shortly. Hezekiah cries out and prays to God profusely. God then tells Isaiah to inform Hezekiah that he’s received a reprieve and God will extend his life an additional fifteen years.

Rabbeinu Bechaye adds more background on the case of King Hezekiah. After Isaiah had given Hezekiah the initial decree, Hezekiah berates Isaiah and tells him to leave, for he has a tradition from his father’s house (he was a descendant of King David), that even if a sword is to your neck, you should not cease from praying to God for mercy. That in fact, prayer is more powerful than prophecy.

However, since the time of the second Temple, it seems Jews have lost the skill, the know-how to compose their own effective prayers. At that time, the Men of the Great Assembly (the Sanhedrin) composed a broader, catch-all prayer, the Shemona Esre prayer (said right after the Shma prayer), which includes praise of God, requests and thanks. The Shemona Esre is a platform to address all of our needs, both as individuals and as a nation. We ask for wisdom, repentance, salvation, healing, sustenance, justice, redemption and more. The Sanhedrin have given us the template; we need to fill it with meaning, with earnestness, and with our own personal call to God. He’s listening.

May we take the time to pray to God, and with these awesome powers at our disposal have the wisdom to know what to ask for and how to ask for it.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Aryeh and Leora Lustig, on their wedding.

Size is Deceptive

Size is Deceptive

What we call little things are merely the causes of great things; they are the beginning, the embryo, and it is the point of departure which, generally speaking, decides the whole future of an existence. One single black speck may be the beginning of a gangrene, of a storm, of a revolution. -Henri Frederic Amiel

In Judaism’s vast array of commandments, there are many that we may consider “minor” relative to others that we may think of as more “important.”

It is curious that those definitions are often highly personal ones and invariably accurately reflect the commandments that people either feel more attached to or those they are more dismissive of.

The Torah itself does categorize some prohibitions as more severe than others in terms of the punishment for violating them. However, when it comes to the performance of commandments, Rabbi Hirsch on Deuteronomy 7:12 explains the problem with underestimating the value of any commandment we consider minor:

 “We are not to weigh each commandment separately in our minds, to consider which one might yield a greater reward than the others and should therefore be given particular priority and attention. The paths of the Law form ever-widening spheres that merge into one another. We cannot, at one glance, predict the results of the observance of any one commandment. The results mesh with one another, as it were, and the very commandment that would seem to us most insignificant and least important may have the most far-reaching effects.”

There are multiple stories as to how the observance of just one “minor” commandment led to life-altering benefits. Likewise, the converse is true. People who have been dismissive of even the “lightest” commandments have had cause to regret it. The commandments are part of an entire tapestry that weaves our lives into a whole spiritual reality. Each thread is important; each commandment that we can observe is part of the entire picture.

May we strengthen our commitment to even one “small” commandment.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To all the small, undisclosed acts of kindness that often go unnoticed and unmentioned.

 

God is in the Details

 

 Show me a man who cannot bother to do little things and I’ll show you a man who cannot be trusted to do big things. -Lawrence D. Bell

detailsThe name of this week’s parasha, Ekev, besides meaning “because” can also be translated as “heel”. The Kabbalists state that this alludes to the small or minor commandments that one is likely to trample on with their heel.

There are an abundance of commandments that have not made it to the general awareness of our day. For example:

  • “Shatnez”: A prohibition to wear any garments that mix wool and linen.
  • Shaving: Cannot use a razor on your face/neck.
  • Haircuts: Cannot shave the hair over the mandibular joint.
  • Tattoos: Prohibited.
  • Horoscopes: Prohibited.
  • Castration: Prohibited to castrate any being.

Besides the lesser-known commandments, even amongst the more widely known ones such as the Sabbath or eating Kosher, there are countless details and minutia that people choose to remain ignorant about or to be less than careful about.

The Sfat Emet in 5631 (1871) states that every single object – including the smallest detail or act – has a divine aspect to it. Hence the almost obsessive compulsion of Jewish law with the minutest details of our existence. By taking care of the small items, we merit to connect their divine sparks to the highest spiritual levels.

May we take the small stuff seriously.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the arrival in Montevideo of Rabbi and Rabbanit Kruger.

 

 

Fashionable Resurrections

Baal Haturim Deuteronomy: Ekev

Fashionable Resurrections

If that vital spark that we find in a grain of wheat can pass unchanged through countless deaths and resurrections, will the spirit of man be unable to pass from this body to another?  -William Jennings Bryan

vampire coffin

It is a principle of Jewish faith that at some point in the future, the dead will come back to life. We have it listed as 13th of Maimonides 13 Principles of Faith: “I believe with complete faith that there will be a revival of the dead when it will rise up the will from the Creator, blessed be His Name.”

This precept raises multiple questions:

  • In what body will we return?
  • Will we return old or young?
  • If we suffered the loss of a limb, will we return whole?
  • If you believe in reincarnation, which person will return?
  • And finally, will we return dressed or naked?

While I have faith that all of these questions will be taken care of satisfactorily, the Baal Haturim does provide in Deuteronomy 8:3 the answer to at least one of the questions. He states that the resurrected will return fully clothed. He gives the analogy to wheat. If a seed of wheat can be buried in the ground “naked”, decompose, and return fully grown and “clothed” then so too, those destined to return from death will return fully clothed.

One less thing to worry about.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To all innocent victims of violence.

Unusual Success

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/ekev-unusual-success/

Netziv Deuteronomy: Ekev

Unusual Success

“The supernatural is the natural not yet understood.” -Elbert Hubbard

As modern men of science, we are in love with the laws of cause and effect. This is true not only in the physical laws, but also in the social and economic laws. This linear thinking certainly dominates the world of business, where one expects that thorough research, good planning, intelligent decisions, skilled personnel and hard work should ostensibly lead to success.

While all these things are generally prerequisites, we are still witnesses to abysmal failures of well executed and well funded ventures as well as the uncommon successes of businesses that one can only say that extreme “luck” was on their side.

The Netziv on Deuteronomy 7:13 introduces another unusual source of success. According to the Netziv the study of Torah, the daily encounter and familiarization with Jewish law and tradition is an uncommon source of blessings. He states that by learning Torah, God bestows blessings over and above the laws of nature. There is some supernatural power in the study of the Torah that can have an influence beyond the rational.

Let’s take advantage and reach for those supernatural blessings.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Robin Williams. You were an uncommon success who made us laugh. We will miss you.

For a speedy recovery of Jackeline Denise Eliana bat Ana Osnat.

The Illusion of Reality

[First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/ekev-the-illusion-of-reality/]

Ibn Ezra Deuteronomy: Ekev

The Illusion of Reality

“Reality is nothing but a collective hunch.” -Lily Tomlin

One of the more insightful films of recent years was the popular “The Matrix” produced by the Wachowski Brothers. The writers imagined a reality that was a sophisticated illusion. Humanity it turned out was dormant, dreaming a collective dream as the machines fed upon human energy. However, the dream felt real. All of the senses were engaged. The brains of the trapped humans saw, felt, heard, smelled and tasted what they perceived as reality.

Only a select minority was free of The Matrix and saw reality for what it was. Ibn Ezra on Deuteronomy 8:3 alludes that our world may also be merely a façade for a deeper reality. He explains that the Children of Israel did not live on bread, but rather by the more divinely obvious Ma’an that descended from the heavens daily. He correlates the bread to the courser, more material, physical reality, while the Ma’an is much more representative of the deeper reality of God’s underlying power and will, which is what truly sustains our existence.

May we see through the illusions of our life to the profound truths of our universe.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the people on different sides of the planet who assisted us in many timely and stress-relieving ways in the reality of moving from one existence to an apparently different one. Though the strain may be a temporal illusion, the relief and friendship are real.

Imperialistic Israel

Ohr Hachayim Deuteronomy: Ekev

Imperialistic Israel

“I will insist that the Hebrews have done more to civilize men than any other nation … fate had ordained the Jews to be the most essential instrument for civilizing the nations.” -John Adams (1735-1826)

Europe is an economic mess, the height of the American empire seems to be in the past, and the question of China as the next superpower still remains a question. Israel on the other hand is proving itself to be economically strong and one of the leading exporters of vital technology to the world.

[The rest of this Torah Insight is at http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/imperialistic-israel/]

The Double-Edged Dollar

Kli Yakar Deuteronomy: Ekev

 

The Double-Edged Dollar

“Ambition makes the same mistake concerning power that avarice makes concerning wealth. She begins by accumulating power as a means to happiness, and she finishes by continuing to accumulate it as an end.” Charles Caleb Colton

Moses recounts how Korah, Datan, Aviram and their followers that rebelled against Moses and God were swallowed up by the earth with all their belongings:

“The earth opened her mouth, and swallowed them up, and their households, and their tents, and all the fortunes at their feet.” Deuteronomy 11:6

The Kli Yakar notes the interesting phrase, “the fortunes at their feet.” He explains that ones wealth is what stands a person up on “their feet.” He quotes Maimonides who sets out that wealth is the basis of a normative life and one of the four pillars (admittedly the lowest – hence the “feet”) of a healthy and successful existence.

The Kli Yakar draws on a midrash that claims Korah was extravagantly wealthy. Israelis to this day still use the term “as wealthy as Korah” to denote extreme wealth. This great wealth led him astray. He thought it was a foundation, a platform, for more power. The desire for greater prestige skewed his thinking. Though he had been considered a great man, he did not see what was clearly erroneous thinking. His wealth blinded him to reality and to the fact that he had taken the wrong side in an ill-considered battle.

In the end, the same wealth that sustained him and his family corrupted his judgment and betrayed him.

May we control our wealth, as opposed to our wealth controlling us.

Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi

Dedication

To Karl Marx. Though I don’t agree with many of the theories he gave birth to and certainly not several of the forms they evolved to, some of the recent protests are reminders that he had a point.