“Unstable Equilibrium” Parashat Ekev 5775

In his shiur last week, Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Weinreb was discussing Moshe’s prayer in which he begs Hashem to annul His own decree preventing Moshe from entering the Land of Israel. Hashem does not acquiesce.

Rabbi Weinreb asserts that Hashem’s refusal teaches an enormous lesson: “We learn that the gates of prayer are not always open. In the words of the Midrash, they are sometimes open but sometimes closed. And we are not to rely upon them exclusively. Rather, we are to do our own part to achieve our objectives in mundane ways. Judaism insists upon a balance between faith in the Divine and the exercise of practical human effort. It acknowledges that while there must be bitachon, trust in the L-rd, there must also be hishtadlut, old fashioned hard work on our part. As the rabbis have it, never rely upon miracles. We can never allow prayer to become a substitute for our doing all we can do. We must not simply expect the Almighty to achieve Jewish sovereignty for us, but must do our parts politically and militarily. We cannot expect manna from heaven, but must earn our livelihoods by dint of the sweat of our brow. And when we are ill, yes, we must pray, but we must also diligently seek out competent medical assistance”. Parashat Ekev offers this thesis some hard proof.

Before we continue, I’d like to slightly rephrase Rabbi Weinreb’s words. While Rabbi Weinreb speaks of a “balance” between faith in Hashem and human effort, I prefer to use the term “unstable equilibrium”. Equilibrium refers to a state in which some parameter in a physical system maintains a constant value. It could be size of a population, it could be temperature of a cup of water, or it could be the distance between two planets. It doesn’t matter, as long as what’s being measured is not changing. What interests us here is a particular kind of equilibrium: an unstable equilibrium. When a system maintains an unstable equilibrium, the system can exit the equilibrium with the smallest push and the once-constant parameter can change rapidly. I like giving the example of a ball at rest. If the ball is at the bottom of a well, no matter in which direction the ball is pushed it will eventually return to rest at the bottom of the well. The ball is in a stable equilibrium. Now let’s turn the well upside down. The ball is now at rest at the highest point on a mountain. But just one puff of wind and that ball will roll down the mountain at an ever-increasing speed. This ball is in an unstable equilibrium.

Parashat Ekev discusses the seven species for which the Land of Israel is blessed: wheat, barley, figs, grapes, pomegranates, olives, and dates. Moshe tells Am Yisrael [Devarim 8:7-10] “Hashem is bringing you to a good land, a land with brooks of water, fountains and depths, that emerge in valleys and mountains, a land of wheat and barley, [grape] vines and figs and pomegranates, a land of oil-producing olives and [date] honey, a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, you will lack nothing in it, a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose mountains you will hew copper. You will eat and be full, and you shall bless Hashem for the good land He has given you.” One phrase in these verses seems extraneous. If we are talking about the produce of the land, why is it important to tell us that the land has an abundance of iron and copper? What do iron and copper have to do with fruit and vegetables? And if Hashem is giving us metals, would it be possible to ask Him for gold and silver? Finally, while Israel was once an exporter of copper[1], we have never been known as an exporter of iron. What, then, is the Torah promising us?

The Rashbam suggests that the verse is telling us that even though the land contains large deposits of metal and will therefore not easily be farmed, Hashem will still bless us with abundant crops. I’d like to try a different path. Let’s look back a few words. Before discussing Israeli geology the Torah calls Israel “a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity (lo b’miskenut)”. Rav Moshe Chaim Ephraim from Sudilkov, the grandson of the Ba’al Shem Tov, writing in “Degel Machaneh Ephraim”, suggests that the word “miskenut” comes from the verse in Kohelet [9:17] “A smart and misken man”, and refers to intelligence or wisdom. The “bread” in the verse is alluding to a verse in Mishlei [9:5] “Come, partake of my bread” and refers to Torah. The Degel Machaneh Ephraim interprets the verse to be saying that Torah that will be learnt in the Land of Israel – “Torat Eretz Yisrael” – will be “great and praiseworthy”. Let’s take only the first half the interpretation of the Degel Machaneh Ephraim. In other words “miskenut” is indeed referring to wisdom, but “bread” means ordinary bread, made from wheat, eggs, flour and water. The verse would then be translated as follows: “a land in which you will eat bread without wisdom”, or better, “a land in which wisdom alone will not put bread on the table”. From where will we get our bread? Fortunately, what is required in order to make bread lies right under your feet: “a land whose stones are iron and out of whose mountains you will hew copper”. If you want bread you must work for it. You’ll have to dig mines. Gold and silver won’t help you – you’ll need iron and copper and maybe some zinc. You’ll have to hew the rock so you can access some metal ore. With the help of a furnace you’ll extract the ore and you’ll fashion yourself some tools. Then you’ll have to take those tools and use them to plough the earth, plant the wheat, water it, thresh it, gather it up, grind it into flour, put it in an oven and bake it. Wisdom, prayer, and the study of Torah will only get you so far. If you want that aching in the pit of your stomach to go away, you’re going to have to get your hands dirty.

Let’s zoom out and take a look at the verses that come immediately before and after the seven species. Before the seven species we are told [Devarim 8:3-4] “[Hashem] afflicted you and let you go hungry, and then fed you with manna… so that He would make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but, rather, by whatever comes forth from the mouth of Hashem. Your clothing did not wear out, nor did your foot swell these forty years.” The Torah is describing a miraculous lifestyle that lasted for forty years in the Sinai Desert, a lifestyle in which Hashem gave us whatever we needed. All we had to do was to snap our fingers. Now let’s look at the verses that follow the seven species [Devarim 8:11-17]: “Beware that you do not forget Hashem by not keeping His commandments, His ordinances, and His statutes, which I command you this day…  and your heart grows haughty, and you forget Hashem, Who has brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage… and you will say to yourself, ‘My strength and the might of my hand has accumulated this wealth for me’”. The Torah is describing a lifestyle in which we have taken Hashem completely out of the picture, not because He is not helping us out on a daily basis, but because we are oblivious to His help.

The Torah describes three different realities. In the first reality, man puts his trust in Hashem but not in himself. In the third reality, man puts his trust in himself but not in Hashem. And in the second reality, sandwiched between the first and the third, man sees himself as Hashem’s partner. The fact that this desired reality is sandwiched between two undesirable ones teaches a critical lesson: a partnership with Hashem is an unstable equilibrium, and there are forces at work that can push the system out of equilibrium, and when this system leaves equilibrium, it’s not coming back. One of these forces is laziness. When the going gets tough, it’s easy to say “Thy will be done”. We peg everything on Hashem, even when we are fully capable of solving the problem ourselves. Slowly we lose our sense of responsibility and we become intoxicated with our new-found freedom. A force that works in the opposite direction is hubris. Man tends to laud himself when he is successful and to attribute his failures to forces beyond his control. Each additional success reinforces his sense of self-worth, making it more difficult to accept that he has been receiving assistance. He becomes offended by the mere suggestion.

Standing at the top of a mountain, it’s scary to look over the edge. It’s such a long way down. Keeping that thought in mind is critical to keep us from falling.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5775

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka

[1] Copper was mined in the Timna Valley, about forty kilometers north of Eilat, for about a thousand years.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2000 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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