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All things are http://gty.im/1249570019 in the hands of Heaven, save the fear of Heaven.
– Talmud, Tractate Berachot
And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God ask from you, but to fear the Lord your God…for your own good.
– Deuteronomy 10:12, 13
Words, no less than humans, are communal beings. No less than ourselves, they draw their meaning from their environment, from the context in which they appear. And, similar to the development of human personalities, the meanings of words accrete as they obtain new layers of significance. One such Hebrew word, eikev, meaning “because” or “owing to,” is the key word in this week’s Torah portion.
As Moses’ career draws to a close, literary markers invoke Abraham. Two words appear for the first time at the binding of Isaac, directed at Abraham: “And the angel of God called to Abraham again from the heavens and said, ‘I have sworn, says the Word of God, that because [ya’an] you did this thing, and did not withhold your son…I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your seed like the stars of the sky and like the sand that is on the seashore…because [eikev] you listened to My voice’” (Gen. 22:15–18).
The words ya’an and eikev are used in reference to Moses as well. After Moses strikes the rock, he and Aaron are punished with not being able to enter the Promised Land, “because [ya’an] you did not believe in Me” (Num. 20:12–13). In this week’s reading, Moses says to Israel, “And it will be because [eikev] you will listen to these ordinances, and you will keep them and you will do them…” (Deut. 7:12).
For Abraham, the sequence is: Ya’an, because you took the action God commanded, and eikev, because you listened to My voice. For Moses and Israel, it is: Ya’an, because you (Moses) failed to take the action God commanded, and eikev, because you (Israel) will listen. From the Torah’s perspective, seeing undermines both faith and clear understanding: we demand to see because we do not truly believe; yet when we see the same thing in different settings, we often fail to recognize it. The Torah exhorts us to hear, with its dual meanings of “understand” and “obey.” Learn and take action.
This week’s reading opens, Hear and Perform. We are exhorted to be like Abraham, who heard and acted. God rewards him, first for the act itself, and only second for the hearing. Moses and Aaron heard but failed to act. God punishes them for their failure. God will keep God’s side of the contract if we keep ours. If we listen.
The fear of Heaven ranges from the simple fear of punishment to the lofty, spiritual awe when we experience our own insignificance in the face of the vastness of Creation. Its pinnacle is the sense of awe we experience when we become aware of our own very great importance – that God has chosen to create us – us! – both collectively and individually. And has given us the Torah, whereby we can commune directly with God. When we realize that God has invited us to become partners in the enterprise of Torah and Creation and human history.
The textual echo of Abraham in this third weekly portion of the book of Deuteronomy reminds us that Abraham makes his first appearance in the third portion of Genesis. Are there other echoes of Genesis? The opening of Deuteronomy evokes the Garden of Eden. Moses recounts the incident of the spies who brought back fruit from the Promised Land. In a reversal of the tragedy of Adam and Eve and the expulsion from Eden, this was the fruit God intended for us, yet we spurned it. We did not eat it, nor did we enter the land. Because of you, Moses scolds the Israelites, I will die here. You have slain me, says Moses. In another parallel to Genesis, the Midrash says Moses is a reincarnation of the soul of Abel, which has yet to fulfill its spiritual mission.
In the second portion, Moses is sent to a mountaintop where God announces his death. This contrasts with Noah, who is saved on a mountaintop in the second portion of Genesis. Moses warns the people repeatedly not to abandon God’s law, for the penalty will be destruction, an echo of the Flood. Israel is warned (4:15–18) not to make images of a human, of any animal, any winged flying creature, any creature that creeps on the ground, or any fish – in short, all living beings, all of which (except the fish, who survived on their own) Noah saved in the Ark.
These points are not hammered home; they are subtle literary markers, often elusive. Yet they are clearly there in the text. The Bible is rich with echoes of its own themes, constantly reminding us that, while God and the Torah are infinite, human life is more circumscribed. We keep being placed before the same choices: to fear God, to obey, to do what is right, and to bring justice into the world. And we keep making the same mistakes – which is why we keep ending up back where we began. Says the Buddhist sage Padmasambhava (India, 8th cent.), “If you want to understand your current life, look to your past actions; if you want to foretell your future situation, look to your current actions.”
“Take care lest you forget God,” warns the Torah, “and you may say to yourself, ‘My strength and the might of my hand created all this wealth for myself!’…then you shall surely perish because [eikev] you will not have listened to the call of the Lord your God” (8:11–20).
All of human history, both national and individual, is an unending spiral of exile and redemption. When we are in exile, it is easy to despair. Though we pray for redemption, we lose patience; and with it, faith. What if redemption comes later than we want it to? Or not at all? What if, like the generation of the Exodus, redemption comes not for us but for our children, or even for their children’s children? What then? Are we to relinquish our spiritual practices, our faith in God and in ourselves?
And on the other hand, when all is well with us and we are prosperous and feel safe, do we give ourselves the credit? It’s so easy to forget God when we have a well-stocked refrigerator, a healthy family, and a comfortable bank account. It’s easy to forget our fundamental obligation to constantly bring justice into the world, to reach out to others and relieve suffering – and to give the credit to God. And then when we are suffering, it’s easy to forget that there are always others who are suffering far more than we are, and easy to blame God for abandoning us.
How are we to strike a balance? To maintain an equilibrium, to safeguard our partnership with God?
Rashi’s message is that we must approach our successes with humility; for we shall surely also suffer reverses. And we must embrace our losses with equanimity, for nothing endures forever but God, and the faith we place in God.
As we saw from the very beginning of Genesis, our dominance and success are not eternally guaranteed. But neither are our failures, nor even our tragedies. Reflect on the message of King Solomon: this too shall pass. Within the constant flow of life, God remains steady. We, as God’s partners, are exhorted to mirror that steadfastness. While we live, says the Torah, let us keep faith. Says Solomon, “The beginning of wisdom is fear of God” (Prov. 9:10). The awe when we reflect that God has chosen us, each one of us, to people God’s world, has granted us access to God’s wisdom and exhorted us to be the agent to bring that wisdom, justice, and compassion to the rest of humanity.
Only this, says the Torah: do not fall victim to pride when things are going well, and do not despair when things go badly. Always stand prepared to do for others, always stand prepared to do for God. Even in the depths of exile, do not forget our allegiance to the purity of God’s message. We never know when the moment will arrive when we, and we alone, may be called upon to save the world.
Says Hamlet, “The readiness is all.”
Says Rashi, do not despair, even in the deepest exile.
Says the Torah: “Listen.”
Yours for a better world.