This week’s Torah portion (Parashat Eikev – Deut. 7:12ff.) opens with the words: “And it shall be, because you will listen to these judgments and keep and perform them, that the LORD your God will keep for you the covenant and the mercy which He swore to your fathers.”
Two things catch my attention here. First, the parasha does not start at the beginning of the chapter, but rather at verse 12. What is it about the first half of the chapter that prompted the editors of the weekly portions not to include it? Could avoiding the earlier verses imply a desire to spare sensitive readers from too much challenging content?
Secondly, I am struck by the phrase, “And it shall be, because (ve-hayah eikev) you will listen…” Moses’ message to the children of Israel is this: “Just as you listen to God’s laws and keep them, so, then, God will behave in a specific way toward you.” As a fan of the detective genre (I especially like Sherlock Holmes and Erast Petrovich Fandorin), I feel that Moses is here leaving us a clue. He does not say, “If you decide to observe the commands,” but rather, “Because you will observe the commands.” The linguistic peculiarity here is the word eikev (“because of, following upon, due to…”), which has the connotation of a warning. Major Torah commentators like as Rashi, Or HaHayyim , Ramban, Ibn Ezra, and others, took notice of this peculiarity, while deciphering the word eikev in its scriptural and exegetical traditions.
The warning I find in the first verse of our parasha is subtle but significant. And reading further, I get a deep sense of sadness, even depression. The God of Deuteronomy, like a possessive partner, first cajoles, and then threatens His beloved. “If you stay with me, love me, do everything I say, and don’t speak with anyone else (‘other gods’) – then I will give you the whole world. But, if you disobey me, then – dir balak! (in Arabic and Hebrew slang – ‘watch out!’).” In fact, the majority of this parasha, and other lengthy sections of Deuteronomy, portray the cruel ways in which Almighty God will punish His “beloved partner,” Israel. As a Jewish feminist, I refuse to countenance such a relationship with God. Moreover, I feel it is my duty to read Parashat Eikev repeatedly, in order to learn this hard lesson: that God sometimes appears in Jewish life as an abusive intimate partner.
I recall the first time I encountered, as a young ultra-Orthodox yeshiva student in Bnei Brak, this intimidating and overbearing God.
It all started with a Talmudic midrash in b. Shabbat 88a, on the verse, “They took their stand at the foot of the mountain” (Exodus 19:17). The reference is to the children of Israel, receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai. In the midrash, Rav Avdimi bar Hama bar Hasa explained, that the Holy One, Blessed be He, upended the mountain over them, like a cask, and then declared: “If you accept the Torah – all is well! But, if not, this mountain will be your grave!”
The Maharal of Prague, unsatisfied with this brief description, elaborated (in Netzah Yisrael, Chapter 11) on why it was absolutely necessary that God threaten the Israelites with death, at the very moment of the giving of Torah. He compared this context to the biblical law concerning a man who has raped a woman (Deut. 22:29). According to this law, the rapist is required to marry the woman, and subsequently can never divorce her. The Maharal argued, that in the act of rape, the rapist forfeits any of a husband’s normal rights to divorce his wife. Hence, he not only must marry his victim, but he can never be separated from her. Just so, in this highly ironic argument, God forces Israel to accept the Torah, a coercive act resembling nothing so much as rape. Thereafter, for the entire history of their relationship, the Israelites and their God may never “divorce,” but are inextricably bound to each other.
Since the Jewish God is infinite, without form or physical appearance, the only mode whereby God can connect with humanity in general, and with Israel in particular, is through His relational actions and indirect manifestations. In this case, as unacceptable as divine coercion may seem, it is incumbent upon us to read Parashat Eikev repeatedly, to recognize that God chose, at least in the Torah, to be manifest sometimes as the powerful abuser in a profoundly intimate, and deeply unequal, relationship.
“And it shall be, because you will listen…” The would-be sleuth in me picks up on the clue that Moses leaves for us in this passage. It is a dire warning – that if we heed God’s teachings and guidance only through fear, then coercion is inevitable. As with “forced love” in any toxic relationship, we may become subjected to God’s violence. Fortunately, both God and Moses devote long chapters of sacred scripture to warn us about this form of violence. And it seems to me likely, that the editor(s) of the weekly portions intended to mitigate this message of God’s coercion, opening our parasha with verse 12, thus splitting the difficult portions between two separate Shabbat readings.
As Jewish leaders, it is our responsibility to identify the clue left by Moses, and to caution the faithful people we serve. We must all remember, that just as it is the responsibility of each community to address internal toxic relationships, so it is the collective responsibility of the Jewish people as a whole, to name and to heal the occasions, when the infinite God is manifested to us as violent and even abusive in His mysterious ways.