26 July 2013

Parshat Eikev 5773 - Shabbat Shalom

19 Menachem Av 5773

Parashat Eikev: “To walk before God in the Light of Life…”
by Daniel Pinner


The entire Book of Deuteronomy has three themes: it is a summary and restatement of what has gone before, it prepares the Children of Israel for their rapidly-approaching new national life in the Land of Israel, and it is Moshe’s emotional and passionate farewell and parting from the nation he loved and led and nurtured. The rhetoric of this Book glides seamlessly between these three themes which interweave with each other and which complement each other.

Over and over again in the Book of Deuteronomy, Moshe reiterates to us that the purpose of the mitzvot is to inherit the Land of Israel. “And now, O Israel, hearken to the laws and the statutes which I teach you to do, so that you will live and you will come and inherit the Land which Hashem, God of your fathers, gives you” (Deuteronomy 4:1). Again: “You shall ensure to do as Hashem your God has commanded you…in the entire way which Hashem your God has commanded you, you shall go, so that you will live and it will be well for you and you will prolong your days in the Land which you inherit” (5:28-29). And again: “You shall do the straight and the good in Hashem’s eyes so that it will be well with you, and you will come and inherit the good Land which Hashem has sworn to you fathers” (6:18). And again: “Ensure to do the entire mitzvah which I command you today – so that you will live and multiply and come and inherit the Land which Hashem swore to your fathers” (8:1). And again: “Justice, justice shall you pursue so that you will live and inherit the Land which Hashem your God gives you.” (16:20)

There are dozens more, but we have got the message. The purpose of keeping the mitzvot is to inherit the Land of Israel.

In this week’s parashah, Moshe gives us this message yet again: “You shall keep the entire mitzvah which I command you today so that you will be strengthened, and you will come and inherit the Land to which you are passing across to inherit, and so that you will lengthen your days on the Land which Hashem swore to your fathers to give to them and to their descendants – a Land flowing with milk and honey.” (11:8-9)

And then, in the next sentence, Moshe continues by describing some of the characteristics of the Land: “Because the Land to which you are coming to inherit – it is not like the land of Egypt which you left, where you would plant your seed and water it on foot like a vegetable garden. The Land to which you are passing over to inherit is a Land of mountains and valleys; you will drink water from the rain of the Heavens; a Land which Hashem your God seeks out; the eyes of Hashem your God are always on it, from the beginning of the year until the end of the year.” (11:10-12)

The difference between Egypt and the Land of Israel is that Egypt is well-watered by the River Nile. There is no shortage of water there, no danger of drought, no fear of a catastrophic crop failure due to the land drying up. Israel, by contrast, relies on rain and dew from Heaven. If there is insufficient rain during the winter, then the earth dries up, the crops wither, and people die in the ensuing famine.

It was no arbitrary decision of Hazal to select the next section as the second paragraph of the Shema: “It will be, if you will diligently hearken to My mitzvot…to love Hashem your God and to serve Him with all your heart and all your soul – then I will give the rain of your Land in its appropriate season, the first rain and the last rain, and you will gather your grain, your wine, and your oil….” (11:13-14)

This induces a very obvious puzzlement. The inference of this is that Egypt is actually superior to Israel: after all, Israel periodically suffers droughts while Egypt has no such danger. Does a country whose agriculture is irrigated by a perennial river (the Nile) not seem to be more secure – more blessed – than a country whose agriculture relies on capricious weather?

Rashi dispels this notion: “‘…where you would…water it on foot’ – in the land of Egypt you would have to bring water from the Nile on foot to water it, so you would have to lose sleep to work; the lowlands were irrigated [by the Nile] but not the highlands, so you would take the water from the lowlands up to the highlands. But in this Land ‘you will drink water from the rain of the Heavens’ – while you sleep in your bed, God will irrigate both the lowlands and the highlands, the exposed areas and the unexposed areas alike” (Commentary to verse 10).

Rashi’s commentary here seems to be abstracted from Sifrei Devarim, Eikev 38: “‘it is not like the land of Egypt’ – the land of Egypt drinks from the lowest sources, while the Land of Israel drinks from the highest of sources. In the land of Egypt the lowest drink while the highest do not drink, in the Land of Israel the lowest and the highest both drink. In the land of Egypt the lowest drink and only afterwards the highest, in the Land of Israel the lowest and the highest drink together. In the land of Egypt that which is exposed drinks while that which is unexposed does not drink, in the Land of Israel the exposed and the unexposed both drink. The land of Egypt first drinks and afterwards is planted, the Land of Israel drinks and is planted, is planted and drinks – it drinks every day and is planted every day. The land of Egypt – you have to work it with mattock and axe and lose sleep working it, but if not, it is worthless; but the Land of Israel is different: they sleep soundly in their beds and God Himself sends down rain.”

The Midrash (Mechilta de-Rabbi Shimon bar Yochay Chapter 16), in an exposition about the manna which God would send down day by day from Heaven, gives a parable: “‘…Each day’s portion on its day’ (Exodus 16:4) – Rabbi Shimon says: He gave them ‘each day’s portion on its day’ because of His love for Israel. This can be explained with a parable of a human king who was angry with his son, and said: Never come to see me! Only at the beginning of each year he would provide him with his sustenance. Thus he would have his sustenance for the entire year, but when he collected it he thought: If only I could see my father, and not receive sustenance! When [the father] was reconciled with him, he said: Let him come to me every day and receive his sustenance. The son said: It is worth it for me just so as I will see the king every day! So it was with Israel: because of His love, He gave them their sustenance day by day, so that they would greet the Shechinah [the Divine presence] every day.”

Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (1787-1859), perhaps the sternest and harshest and most uncompromising of all the Hassidic masters, used this Midrash to understand the curse that God cast upon the snake in the Garden of Eden: “On your belly you shall walk, and dust you shall eat, all the days of your life” (Genesis 3:14). What a peculiar curse! His sustenance will always be at hand. The snake will never be hungry – is that a curse?

Yes, said the Kotzker Rebbe. The snake’s sustenance – dust – is always available. He will never have to search for his food. God provides for the whole of His creation – and the snake’s sustenance is such that he will never have to work for it. He will never have a relationship with God, never have to pray to God for sustenance.

This is the difference between Egypt and Israel. Egypt has the River Nile to provide it with all the water it needs. Israel depends upon the Heavens to provide water – rain and dew – commensurate with our mitzvot. It is indeed “a Land which Hashem your God seeks out; the eyes of Hashem your God are always on it, from the beginning of the year until the end of the year.” (Deuteronomy 11:12)

On the phrase “…a Land which Hashem your God seeks out”, the S’forno (Rabbi Ovadyah S’forno, Italy, c.1470-1550) comments: “He supervises the deeds of those who dwell in it, whether or not they deserve rain. So know this, because it is indeed true.”

And the Malbim (Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yechiel Michael Weiser, Volhynia, Poland, and Romania, 1809-1879) writes: “The Land is under His supervision, and He does not ‘seek it out’ just once a year; ‘the eyes of Hashem your God are always on it’ because the growth of its fruits depends upon constant individual supervision, and this supervision depends upon [humans’] deeds, if they are good or bad.”

And on the phrase “from the beginning of the year until the end of the year”, Rashi, following the Talmud (Rosh ha-Shanah 8a), comments: “From Rosh ha-Shanah, it is decreed how [the year] will end”. And the Ba’al ha-Turim (Rabbi Ya’akov ben Asher, Germany and Spain, c.1275-1343) notes that the word “me-reishit” (“from the beginning of”) contains the same letters as “mi-Tishrei” (“from Tishrei”).

Ever since the yearly cycle of Torah readings was standardised towards the end of the Second Temple era, and the fixed calendar as calculated by Hillel II (Hillel ben Yehudah, Nasi or Head of the Sanhedrin) was adopted in 4119 (359 C.E.), Parashat Eikev is always read after the 9thof Av, in these last few weeks before Rosh ha-Shanah.

So appropriately for this season, it exhorts us to reject the sin of the spies that brought on us the disasters of the 9th of Av by returning to the Land of Israel. And also appropriately for this season, less than two weeks before Elul, the month of penitence, begins, it combines Torah with the Land of Israel by instructing us, yet again, that the purpose of the mitzvot is that we enter and inherit the Land of Israel.

When the Philistines seized David in Gath (long before he was King David, when he was still a rebel against King Saul), David composed a prayer which would later become the 56th Psalm: “For the Conductor, regarding the far-away silent dove, a Michtam, when the Philistines seized him in Gath…”. The “far-away silent dove” was David himself, far away from the Land of Israel, and when surrounded by the Philistines who sought to kill him, was forced to be as a silent dove (Rashi, Radak, and Metzudat David ad. loc.).

David concluded his prayer by thanking God: “Because You have rescued my soul from death, indeed my feet from stumbling, to walk before God in the Light of Life” (Psalms 56:14).

On the phrase “to walk before God in the Light of Life”, the Radak (Rabbi David Kimchi, France, c.1160-c.1235) says simply: “‘to walk before God’ – this means the Land of Israel; ‘in the Light of Life’ – this means the Garden of Eden”.

The Talmud tells us that “the Garden of Eden is called ‘Life’, as it says ‘…I will walk before God in the Land of Life’ (Psalms 116:9)… The Land of Israel is called ‘Life’, as it says ‘I will bestow splendour upon the Land of Life’ (Ezekiel 26:20)” (Avot de-Rabbi Natan 34:11).

To return to the Land of Israel – to return to the Garden of Eden. To rectify the sin of the spies – to rectify the sin of Adam. The one leads to the other, the one is bound up with the other.