A Taste of Torah: Weekly Commentary from the JTS Community
Parashat Eikev 5766
Deuteronomy 7:12 – 11:25
August 12, 2006 18 Av 5766
This week's commentary was written by Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz, Senior Rabbinic Fellow
Loyalty to covenant and the observance of mitzvot are the theme of Parashat Eikev. Even more movingly (and especially at this time of distress in Israel), the parashah speaks of the beauty and blessing of the land of Israel. In addition to enumerating the seven species (wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates), Torah relates: "For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with streams and springs and fountains issuing from plain and hill . . . a land where you may eat food without stint, and where you will lack nothing" (Deuteronomy 8:7–10). Anyone who has been to Israel resonates with this poetic description. Walking through the alleyways of Mahane Yehudah, the open air market in Jerusalem, one is treated to the plentiful variety of colorful and sweet produce of the land. Its bounty is truly a blessing for visitor and citizen alike. Yet, at the conclusion of describing the riches of the land, Torah issues a warning: "Take care lest you forget the Lord your God and fail to keep God's commandments." (Deuteronomy 8:11). Why juxtapose this ominous warning to the people with a vibrant description of the blessings of the Promised Land? What is the concern and message of Torah in partnering these concepts?
Rabbi Elie Munk, an Orthodox Rabbi who served the Paris Jewish community for many years, suggests two reasons for the Torah's warning immediately following the description of the land's riches. First, given the seven species with which the land of Israel is blessed, it is easy to understand why one would be seduced by the bounty of Israel. Rabbi Munk writes, "Its fertility can distract the farmer from seeing the hand of Hashem; the Israelites may have been tempted to follow the practices of the previous inhabitants, worshipping idols representing agricultural gods, such as Baal and Astarte, instead of the one true God" (Munk, The Call of Torah, 91–92). As alluring as the fertility of the land may be, Torah urges us to focus on the ultimate source of blessing — God. Second, a few verses later, Deuteronomy states, "When you have eaten your fill, and have built fine houses to live in . . . beware lest your heart grow haughty." According to Munk, this verse alludes to "material progress resulting from man's technological and economic efforts" (Munk, 92). Again, such materialism is often blinding, leading one to unbounded pridefulness. In moments of great economic success, we too often get wrapped up in our own egos. We often attribute too much credit to ourselves. Ultimately, based on Rabbi Munk's reading of these texts, I would suggest the potential problem is one of vision.
Far from viewing ourselves through the lens of Emerson's notion of "self–reliance," Judaism is community centered and more importantly, God centered. As a religious system, Judaism requires tzimtzum, the diminishing of the ego — and keen awareness of one's humble role in the grand scheme of creation. One cannot presume to be God, or to have a monopoly on the word of God. It is such destructive pridefulness and idolatry that the world is confronting in the form of religious fundamentalism and in particular, Islamic fundamentalism. When we attribute our daily successes solely to the work of our hands without an acknowledgment of partnership with God, we take a step closer to a Godless world — a universe in which the forces of chaos prevail. Not only does Torah remind us of the preciousness of Israel and our duty to remember God at the root of all blessing, it is expressing a deeper message of recognizing one's humble place in this world.
Rabbi Matthew L. Berkowitz