My third-grade art teacher was a terror. Her rules were ironclad, and disobedience was severely punished. Quick to lose her temper, she once grabbed a paintbrush from me, and critiquing the stars I had sketched in my rendition of the night sky, painted directly over them. One day, as the class was gathered around, watching her at the demonstration table, I realized that I needed to go to the bathroom. But I knew the rules: no leaving the room without permission, no interrupting the demonstration, and no raising your hand unless the teacher asked a question. I waited patiently until she posed a question, and then, with all of us permitted to raise our hands, fervently waved mine in hopes of being singled out. Minutes went by—eons to a seven-year-old with a full bladder—and I was left squirming from one foot to the other. Panic welled up in me. I knew I wasn't going to be able to hold it much longer, but I also knew the wrath that I would encounter if I bolted for the door without permission. When I finally lost control in front of the entire class, the teacher scolded me: Why didn't you just ask?
I didn't know I could.
Parashat Eikev, for me, is brutal. The crush of the Deuteronomic God, the if-then God of wrath and punishment, is overbearing. The choice that God offers in our parashah is not a choice: "And if you do obey these rules and observe them carefully, the Lord your God will maintain faithfully for you the covenant that He made on oath with your fathers: He will favor you and bless you . . . (Deut. 7:12–13). On the other hand: "If you do forget the Lord your God and follow other gods to serve them or bow down to them, I warn you this day that you shall certainly perish . . . " (Deut. 8:19). The God of Eikev infantilizes, expecting that we will respond to an if-then choice, which is not a choice at all but rather a display of raw power. "Bear in mind that the Lord your God disciplines you just as a man disciplines his son. Therefore keep the commandments of the Lord your God: walk in His ways and revere Him" (Deut. 8:5). Reading Eikev, I can't help but feel the way I did in that third-grade art class: constrained by the narrowness of the rules, and left wondering what room there is for me to ask questions, take care of my own needs, or paint stars of a different sort.
The thing is: human beings are not automatons. We have souls that yearn for creative expression, minds that ask questions, bodies that sometimes need to disregard the rules. The if-then, reward-or-punishment model ignores the reality that life is a process of growing (growing up, growing older, growing wiser), and that personal growth and transformation hinge, at times, on straying from God's word and journey to unknown and forbidden places. As the philosopher Robert Nozick put it: "Because our lives continue over time, we can experiment and try out choices or modify them. We also can pursue some traits intensely without having to forgo others permanently; these can await another time. We thus can aim to have a self that develops" (The Examined Life, p. 129). Would the God of Eikev have tolerated this?
Perhaps the God of this week's parashah would not; but, fortunately, we are granted glimpses of other faces of God in other parashiyot that would. Think of the God whom Abraham addresses in the Sodom and Gomorrah episode of Genesis 18: "Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? What if there should be innocent people in the city?" (verses 23–24). Or the angel of God with whom Jacob wrestles in Genesis 32, who changes Jacob's name to Israel, "for you have striven with beings divine and human and have prevailed" (verse 29). Or Moses, who begs God not to destroy the people following the incident of the golden calf (Exod. 32:11): "Let not Your anger, O Lord, blaze forth against Your people!" In fact, it is Moses the narrator speaking to us in Parashat Eikev, the very Moses who has argued with God, challenged God, tried to escape God's service, who ultimately spent his life serving God but was still not rewarded with the Promised Land; it is this Moses who closes out his theological treatise with the rewarding-and-punishing God, a fact that is perhaps best understood in light of where he is in his own religious journey, navigating his own life's disappointments. That he had a religious journey, though, that he experienced God in different ways throughout his lifetime, I think is crucially important for us as we read this parashah and try to make sense of it in our own lives.
There are times when we need a commanding God, when we need the structure of a God-who-enforces-rules to get us through a particularly wild stretch of life. There are other times when we feel rebellious, when we know what God would expect of us but also have a need to not do that, to stretch the limits of self and our relationship to the God we think we believe in. "The challenge we face is knowing when to reach into which pocket," writes Estelle Frankel (Sacred Therapy, p. 82). "There are times when we must assert our will, and there are times to surrender in deep humility to that which is so much larger and more awesome than we are. Many situations demand that we hold on to both kvitel at once, avoiding both the extremes of self-inflation and self-nullification." This is why the Shema', the backbone of our liturgy, which we are encouraged to recite twice daily, contains both a passage from Parashat Eikev (Deut. 11:13–21)—in its purest reward-and-punishment, choice-that-isn't-really-a-choice, form—and the v'ahavta passage (Deut. 6:4–9), commanding us to love God as well. We need both.
Onkelos, the first-century translator of Torah into Aramaic, chose an unusual word for Eikev translated by JPS as "if" ("And if you do obey these rules"). Onkelos instead translated it as chalaf, meaning "in exchange for," opening up the possibility that if-then is not all there is to these passages. Nachmanides, in his commentary on Deuteronomy 7:12, takes Onkelos's translation as grounds for a new interpretation: "Onkelos thus made it an expression of 'roundabout,' the end result of a series of events, derived from the verse 'and he-akov (the crooked) shall be made straight' (Isa. 40:4)—that is, the circuitous road that goes roundabout will become a straight, level path" Life is a journey, and even the God of Eikev does not expect us to always walk the straight and narrow.
As we grow up, we learn we can ask questions, even questions that will get us in trouble. We learn that we have more choices than obey-or-be-punished. We know it is unacceptable to have the paintbrush grabbed away, that we have the right to draw stars however we imagine, and that we sometimes need to leave the room without permission. We know that in order to grow, we must challenge the God of Eikev (who among us has really seen the reward-and-punishment thing bear out as promised, anyway?). We learn that God has 70 faces and the one presented to us in Parashat Eikev is but one, and that our job is to grow and ask the hard questions of life and faith. It begins with knowing that we can.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.