Deuteronomy on How NOT to be a Conquistador

We are reading a portion of Deuteronomy that talks about conquest. Conquest is a word that has as much baggage is any these days, particularly among liberal circles. Conquest is a challenging word to encounter as we grapple with the burden of inheriting our sacred text.

While it may be jarring for some to read about Conquest, we also know that this is ancient literature with an historical context. And there’s no getting around the fact that the setting for the book of Deuteronomy is Moses the leader of the Israelites telling them how to conquer the Land. This, by the way, was not an uncommon theme for ancient near eastern texts.

But this is our text, so we have a choice: We could skip all the commandments that are attached to the conquest. But then we would be in deep trouble. Because some of our most treasured commandments are actually attached to the the Conquest, providing adverbial context for the mission– commandments that we often quote without even thinking about the Land; Commandments without which we may never have made it this far in history. You already know most of them!

  • Justice Justice you shall pursue! Why? So you may thrive in the land!
  • Deliver the first fruits to the high priest!
  • Open your hand to the needy!
  • And all 36 reminders to “remember that you were strangers in the land of Egypt” – all attached to the promise of the Land.

This is all part of the biblical deal the Israelites struck. Don’t pursue justice? Fine, don’t complain when you get destroyed.

Close your hand to the hungry? You lose the right to grow crops for your own family.

Forget the feelings of the stranger? You will lose all the privileges you’ve acquired and, frankly, taken for granted. That’s part of the deal. That’s how the book of Deuteronomy delivers its message.

Our Torah portion this week, Parashat Eikev, is no different. This week we get a very important rule for how the Israelites are supposed to conquer the Land. Three consecutive verbs, three distinct actions that the Israelites have to find a way to do at once.
The text reads:

When you have eaten (achalta) when you are sated (v’sava’ta), give thanks (uveirachta) to the Eternal your God for the good Land given to you. (Deut 8:10-14)

Achalta, v’savata, uveirachta. EAT, BE FULL, and BLESS.

If Torah were a “rule book” and nothing more, these words alone would be enough. But the Torah is more than that. It’s a book that anticipates human behavior, and often gives laws to push us to act otherwise. So the text continues:

Take care lest you forget the Eternal your God and fail to keep God’s commandments, rules, and laws which I set upon you today. When you have eaten your fill, and have built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own has prospered, beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget the Eternal your God–who freed you from the land of Egypt, the house of oppression!

The Torah is anticipating the mindset or groupthink of a people after becoming powerful. “Beware of your heart growing haughty” – In other words– you’ll get snooty, arrogant, complacent. We are talking about the danger that comes with comfort.

3 critical words. Achalta, savata, veirachta.

Achalta means to eat. As a people, we’re pretty good at that. But if we follow that word through the Bible, we find that it’s not such a benign behavior. Let’s not forget, in the Torah, the earth can also swallow up human beings. The Prophets admonished the Israelites, as well, that immorality can result in being consumed by the Land.

And the second word, SAVATA, the Hebrew soveah, refers to satiation, filling one’s belly. The state of being sated almost always comes with a warning. We find this word used in the end of Genesis, in fact, when Joseph gives the news about 7 years of abundance, it’s this word that he uses– soveah, fullness. And soveah in this context is, as we know, attached to those subsequent devastating years of absolute famine, suffering, and poverty.

The word soveah, if we look across the Hebrew Bible, probably comes closer to gluttony than satiation: it’s overabundance, overconsumption.

This is why the third word, VEIRACHTA, is so utterly important. B’racha – blessing.  Because without it, what kind of rulers would Joshua and the Israelites be? This is exactly what our text warns us against, when attaching that third word to the other two.

Achalta v’savata— eat and fill your belly. But if we stop there those two verbs become perilous. That behavior alone can make for a certain type of person. Anyone who’s been bullied by the ruler of a lunchroom knows, anyone who has studied Jewish history knows what that type of person looks like, and talks like, and acts like, and tweets like.

And this is why our text reads: Achalta v’savata– Yes, eat and be full– UVEIRACHA— BUT YOU SHALL BLESS!

You shall be a people who live with gratitude in your hearts, who remind one another after every single luxurious bite–that this is a blessing, and this is a blessing, and even this is a blessing too!

Right now, the entire Jewish people worldwide is reading this book, the book of Deuteronomy. And as we read this, we cannot ignore the primary context of the conquest of the land.

And this week, these three words, these commandments on how to eat while taking over a land, reveal that this book is not a guidebook on becoming a Conquistador. This is the antithesis! This story urges us to oppose modes of leadership that are driven by greed, gluttony, despotism, reckless authoritarianism, and brut piggishness.


The Israelites are charged with seemingly impossible mission. The mission of becoming, “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Our ancestors struck a deal with God to uphold a Covenant.

If that Covenant is alive, than it continues to bear upon every single one of us, every day, in ways large and small– in how we behave as family, friends, community members, and citizens in a democratic nation desperate for righteous leadership.

It is not accidental that every major Covenant in Torah is accompanied by a meal. We are not what we eat, we are how we eat.  There is a particular way that we the Jewish people eat. And, no, it’s not just “a lot.” Or “loudly and with our mouths open.”

We eat. We fill our bellies. But God forbid we forget to bless!

Blessed are you God, who provides enough sustenance for all.   Baruch atah Adonai HaZan et Hakol. 


Sermon delivered by Rabbi Matt Soffer at Temple Israel of Boston, Friday August 11, 2017/5777.

About the Author
Matthew Soffer is the Senior Associate Rabbi at Temple Israel of Boston, where he leads the social justice efforts, practicing congregation-based community organizing with the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO). Matt serves on the Advisory Council of the Pluralism Project at Harvard University, the Board of the Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action (JALSA), the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis, and the Rabbinic Council of Hand-in-Hand Center for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel.
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