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Friday, June 5, 2020

Parashat Ekev: To walk in God’s ways

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Rabbi Robin Podolsky
Rabbi Robin Podolsky teaches Jewish Thought at California State University at Long Beach and serves as affiliated clergy at Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park and Eagle Rock. She strives to live and teach a Judaism that is rich with answers and productive questions for people who seek meaning, justice, and kindness in a complex world. She Rabbi Podolsky has published articles in the Journal of Jewish Ethics, the Pluralist, Response, and European Judaism.

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“…to walk in all (God’s) ways…”(Devarim 10:12) These are the ways of the Holy Blessed One: “HaShem, HaShem, God of compassion, grace, forbearance and great kindness and truth, granting kindness for a thousand generations, forgiving transgression, rebellion and sin…”(Shmot 34:6)  Just as God is called compassionate and gracious, so too you must be compassionate and gracious.  Just as the Holy Blessed One is called just, as it is written, “HaShem is just in all God’s ways…” (Tehilim 145:17), so too you must be just.  The Holy Blessed One is called kind, as it is written, “and kind in all God’s deeds” (ibid), so too must you be kind.”  Sifre Devarim

Parashat Ekev teaches us about relationship: about that between the human and God and about the potential in those we have with one another.  About our relationship with God, this parashah teaches us, above all, of gratitude.  One of our key prayers of thanks has its origins in this chapter.

The Birkhat ha-Mazon, our blessing following a meal contains the verse, “… (and) you have eaten and you have been satisfied, and so you will bless HaShem your God for the good land which has been given to you.” (Devarim 8:10)  The text goes on to make its point clear: “When you have eaten to satisfaction and built good houses…and everything which is yours has increased…and your heart swells and you forget your God who took you out from the land of Egypt…and who fed you manna in the desert…and you say in your heart, “My own strength has won this wealth for me…you will certainly be destroyed.” (Devarim 8:12-19)

In connection with this idea, the text gives us a saying that has been so overused in our culture that it can degenerate into a cliché: “The human being does not live on bread alone.”(Devarim 8:3)  The text goes on to say, “Thus, on all that comes from the mouth of God, a person lives.” (ibid)  The Sfas Emes, a Hasidic teacher, (Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter, Poland 1847-1905), suggests in his commentary to Parashat Beshalakh that manna is a kind of rarified food, spiritual nourishment given directly from God, as distinct from food produced through natural processes.  In this way, the manna symbolizes the createdness behind those natural processes.  Reminding us of manna in this context, then, indicates that, even when we ourselves work hard to earn and produce our food and other goods, we do so as creatures, as recipients of God’s generosity and grace.

We are also reminded that, in the desert, we received Torah along with the gift of manna.  This is what came from “the mouth of God.” Again, a direct infusion of holiness from God into our everyday lives on earth.  The phrase, “not by bread alone,” in casual conversation often refers to beauty and art, as opposed to material goods.  As it was first used in Torah, this phrase does refer to spiritual sustenance, that which gives our material lives purpose and uplifts us, not only with the elegance of its words and the fascination of its stories, but also with its lessons for how to make the most of this embodied life we are given.

In some ways, this lesson from our parashah rubs against our American grain.  Much of our popular culture extols the virtue of self-reliance.  This emphasis on industriousness and resourcefulness can become distorted into a caricature; into the myth of that ontological impossibility, the self-made man.

Our Torah reminds us that none of us made our self.  For one thing, we Jews believe that each of us is a creation of the Holy One, that our souls connect us to the Divine.  Our Torah also teaches us that a Divinely ordered life is lived in community with other people; that the goods and services we enjoy and the work we do comprise the webs of relationship that make a society.  As the Sfas Emes teaches, the manna that we received along with our Torah symbolize our ongoing situation, that of dependence on God, along with our interdependence with one another.

This situation is clearly apparent in our lives today.  Few of us grow all of our own food and build our own houses by ourselves.  We dwell and eat in the context of social relationships.  Our parashah is clear about how to express and enhance the holiness of this life: “Do justice by the orphan and widow, and love the stranger by giving food and clothing; and you will love the stranger as you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”(Devarim 10:18,19)  Our text teaches us that a truly prosperous society provides a safety net, a standard of living below which no one, including the socially powerless, can be allowed to fall.  It teaches further that failing to remember the truth of our human interdependence by imagining ourselves to be the sole authors of our own success is to court destruction.

When we bless our food, we bless its Creator. We also acknowledge that our food today is not like manna. Human hands harvested it, prepared it, shipped it—made it possible for us to eat. When we bless the Creator of food, we bless those hands made b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of the Holy One. Not because God has a body—God does not—but because, like our Sculptor, human beings have the capacity to create, to turn one thing into another; to make wheat into food. When we bless our food, we bless the migrant, the trucker, and the grocer who made our satisfaction possible.

Our text does not condemn initiative or hard work or prosperity.  To the contrary, it suggests that these are ingredients for a wholesome life.  However, it does suggest that we are all in this together, that a society which creates conditions in which no one is allowed to fall beyond the place where hard work might help them rise is living in holy relationship, with God and with one another.

As the Midrash in Sifre reminds us, all that we are asked in return for the gifts of manna and Torah, the gift of life itself, is that we do our—necessarily imperfect—best to follow the example of our Creator in generosity and caring.  That which brings out our gratitude ought to elicit our emulation.

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