Lessons for Humanity
from the Weekly Parshah
THE BOOK & THE SWORD; THE LOAF & THE STICK
The Midrash on Parshas EIKEV teaches: "The Book and the Sword descended from heaven entwined together; the Loaf and the Rod descended from heaven entwined together" (Sifri). The Book -- the Torah -- brings blessing to the world if we observe it; but if not, a Sword is attached that wreaks the vengeance of the Covenant. The Loaf of Bread, the "staff of life", is given as G-d's blessing when we keep the Torah, but if we stray, the struggles of making a living can turn into a painful rod of punishment.
This Midrash expresses the conditional nature of G-d's Covenant with Israel, a central theme in Eikev and one that appears with increasing emphasis as we advance through Deuteronomy. Eikev begins with the rich blessings and benefits that are the reward for keeping the laws of the Torah. Yet in the course of the parshah, Moses brings out in numerous different ways that these blessings and benefits may not be taken for granted: long-term possession of the Land of Israel and enjoyment of its blessings are strictly contingent upon proper observance of the Covenant on our part. This is clearly stated at the climax of the parshah (Deuteronomy 11:13-21), recited every day, night and morning, as the second paragraph of the SHEMA. "If you will surely listen. I will give the rain of your land in its time. and you will eat and be satisfied. But if you go astray. you will quickly be lost from the good land that HaShem is giving you."
G-d wants that the benefits and blessings should truly be ours -- that we should have them not as a free gift which the recipient does not appreciate and which embarrasses him, but rather as something we have earned through our own efforts in the face of challenges and difficulties. G-d therefore sends many trials in life, and sometimes takes us through the very wilderness "in order to chastise you, to test you, to know what is in your heart and whether you will observe His commandments or not" (Deut. 8:2). We are here to learn a deep lesson that we have to know not just in our minds but within our very hearts. The lesson is, "that just as a man chastises his son [out of love] so HaShem your G-d chastises you" (ibid. 4. 5). We have to learn and know in our hearts that any suffering we endure and all the obstacles in our path are sent not because G-d wants to throw us down but rather because He wants us to strive harder to get up, in order to come to greater good.
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THE BLESSED LAND
The ultimate state of benefit and goodness is expressed in the Torah as Israel living securely in their own land "from the river to the sea" (Deut. 11:24), observing the Torah and enjoying all the blessings of the land. The rectified Land of Israel of this world is to be the earthly replica of the essential Land of Israel, which is the Land of the Living inherited forever by the meek and righteous in the World to Come.
Nowhere in the Torah is there greater praise of the holy Land of Israel than throughout our parshah of Eikev. It is "a good land, a land of streams of water, springs and deep sources emerging in the valleys and in the mountains. A land of wheat and barley and vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of oily olives and date-honey. A land in which you will eat bread not in poverty -- you will not lack anything in it: it is a land whose stones are iron and from whose mountains you will hew copper. And you will eat and be satisfied and bless HaShem your G-d over the good land He has given you" (Deut. 8:7-10).
"For the land to which you are coming in order to inherit it is not like the land of Egypt which you left, where you sow your seed and water the land on foot like a vegetable garden. But the land that you are passing over to inherit is a land of mountains and valleys; it drinks water according to the rain of the heavens. It is a land that HaShem your G-d seeks; the eyes of HaShem your G-d are always on it from the beginning of the year to the end of the year" (Deut. 11:10-12).
The actual country of Israel is one of exquisite beauty and grace, with its ever-changing landscape of mountains, hills and valleys and plains. The entire country is a tiny part of the entire earth, yet nothing is lacking, from the ski slopes of Mount Hermon to the arid Negev desert. The seven fruits for which Israel is particularly praised are all of exceptional nutritional value as well as providing numerous other benefits. Almost every other conceivable variety of fruits, vegetables and spices also grows somewhere in Israel. Why so many different species all grow so well in this tiny land is explained in the Midrash, which teaches that subterranean energy channels emanate from the "Foundation Stone" on the Temple Mount, the source of all creation, spreading throughout Israel, and fanning out from there to all parts of the world. Each channel has the power to stimulate a particular species. If people knew the exact location of these subterranean channels, they would be able to grow any kind of tree or plant they wanted (Kohelet Rabbah 2:7; see Rabbi Nachman's Wisdom p. 167).
The key difference between Israel and Egypt, which represents all other lands, lies in the water economy, which is the key to agriculture and therefore to the whole economy. In Egypt, the main source of water is the Nile, whose annual rise is one of the fixed regularities of nature. For the farmer in Egypt, making a living is less of a trial of faith. He knows when the river can be expected to rise, and he knows it is up to him to put in the "foot-work", carrying water from field to field to irrigate his crops so as to produce food. It is easy for him to come to believe that everything works according to the laws of nature, and that his own "foot-work" (operating the natural causes) is what "produces" his food and livelihood.
Israel's precarious dependence on rain from heaven for its water supply makes it harder to fall into the error of believing that we single-handedly "produce" our own livelihood through our own material efforts. We depend on G-d. No matter how efficiently we till our fields, if the rains don't come from heaven, we will not be able to produce anything. The rainfall in the Land of Israel is temperamental! Whether the rains fall sparsely or in abundance does not depend on anything we can do on the material plane. Rather, it represents G-d's response to our efforts on the moral and spiritual planes of our lives. The rainfall and everything else in Israel are subject to G-d's direct supervision in every detail, and thus, "the eyes of HaShem your G-d are always on it from the beginning of the year to the end of the year".
The purpose of being in the Land of Israel is to live in a state of closeness and interactivity with G-d, understanding that in everything we do in this world we are "partners" with Him. We are here to earn the goodness we enjoy through our own efforts, but we must understand that our efforts can only succeed when they are in alignment with His will as expressed in the Torah. It is a dangerous sin to believe that "my power and the strength of my hand have made for me all this prosperity" (Deut. 8:17). On the contrary, it is necessary to remember always that "It is He who gives you the power to produce prosperity" (ibid. v.18).
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WHAT DOES G-D ASK OF YOU?
In parshas Eikev one of the main focuses of Moses' reproof is the sin of the Golden Calf. This represents the exact opposite of the relationship with wealth and prosperity that G-d wants in the rectified Land of Israel. The sin of the Golden Calf represents the pursuit of material prosperity and pleasure for their own sake. Putting their own strength, power and pleasure at the center of the world drives men into forgetfulness: man forgets G-d.
G-d wants man to be blessed with material wealth not for its own sake, but because when his needs are provided he can better devote himself to the pursuit of the knowledge of G-d and His Torah. In the rectified Land of Israel, prosperity leads to . "And you shall eat and be satisfied and bless HaShem your G-d" (Deut. 8:10).
This verse contains the commandment to bless G-d after eating, from which the sages also derived the obligation to bless Him before eating or partaking of other material pleasures. The blessing before and after eating elevates it from the level of a mere physical function to an act of service that brings us closer to G-d by enhancing our awareness of His hand in providing our livelihood.
The essence of what G-d asks of us, as expressed in our parshah, is to seek awareness and knowledge of G-d in all the different aspects of our lives. "And now, Israel, what (MAH) does HaShem your G-d ask of you except to revere HaShem your G-d, to go in all His ways, to love Him and to serve HaShem your G-d with all your heart and with all your soul" (Deut. 10:12).
The Rabbis taught that what G-d asks of us -- MAH -- is actually ME'AH, "one hundred", alluding to the one hundred blessings that make up the daily order of our prayers (the morning blessings, the blessings before and after food and the thrice-repeated 18 blessings of the Amidah standing prayer). By regularly blessing G-d throughout the day and praying to Him for all the different specifics in our lives, we heighten our consciousness of His active involvement in every area of our lives. This is how we overcome "forgetfulness".
Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum
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