In Parashat Ekev, Moshe warns the Jewish people, no fewer than three times, of what we might erroneously believe:
Lest you say in your heart, these nations are more numerous than I, how will I be able to drive them out? (Devarim 7:17)
These hypothetical words are placed in the mouths of the children of Israel at the time Moshe is speaking, as they wait to cross the Jordan, enter the land, and conquer it from the Canaanites.
Moshe refutes this sentiment. We need not fear. God is with us; He took us out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. We can trust Him to deliver the Canaanites into our hands.
And you will say in your heart, my strength and the might of my hand have made me this wealth. (Devarim 8:17)
The next mistaken words will perhaps be spoken years in the future, after the successful conquest. Ironically, before we entered the land, we may be terrified that we will lack the strength to conquer it. Yet after God drives out the Canaanites, and we settle down and prosper, we risk becoming convinced that we achieved everything ourselves, without His help.
The error here is clear – and the arrogance of forgetting God carries the grave danger of destruction.
Chronologically, the third hypothetical erroneous statement comes in the middle, just as we are conquering the land. It is also the most surprising:
Do not say in your heart, when the Lord your God pushes them away from before you, saying: Through my righteousness, the Lord brought me to take possession of this land, and through the wickedness of these nations the Lord drives them out from before you. (Devarim 9:4)
In the second statement, we brazenly take material credit for all we have achieved and amassed, forgetting that it is from God.
In the third statement, we do give God credit. In the midst of the conquest, it is easy to acknowledge His power. Our mistake is in taking spiritual credit for His deeds.
Yes, God miraculously helped us to conquer the land of Israel from the Canaanites.
But not because we deserved it!
Not through your righteousness and the uprightness of your heart do you come to possess their land; rather, through the wickedness of these nations the Lord your God drives them away from before you, and in order to fulfil the word that the Lord your God swore to your ancestors, to Avraham, to Yitzchak, and to Yaakov. And you shall know that it is not through your righteousness that the Lord your God gives you this good land to possess it, for you are a stiff-necked nation. (Devarim 9:5-6)
The Canaanites indeed deserved to be driven out. However, our own merits were insufficient, and God gave us the land only to fulfil His promise to our forefathers. As Moshe recounts here in detail, we are the rebellious nation that provoked God’s wrath with the sin of the Golden Calf.
What is the message of these three erroneous statements, and their corrections, taken together?
We can enter the land with confidence and trust in God. But after the initial miracles have faded into history, we must remain vigilant to avoid over-confidence and pride in our own abilities – and in our own righteousness.
As religious Jews, we are well aware of the risks of material over-confidence. The words kochi ve-otzem yadi – “my strength and the power of my hand” – have become a sort of catch phrase for relying on our military might and forgetting about God.
But what about spiritual overconfidence – be-tzidkati, “through my righteousness”? When we acknowledge the tremendous miracles God has performed for us, we also need the humility to remember that we do not entirely deserve them.
God did not give us this land as a reward for moral or spiritual achievements, but despite our lack of them.
Towards the end of the parasha, we are reminded that we can remain here only through our merits. We recite these words daily, as the second paragraph of Shema:
If you hearken to my mitzvot… I will give the rain of your land in its time….Take care lest your hearts be tempted and you stray and worship other gods….and you will rapidly vanish from upon the good land that the Lord gives you… (Devarim 11:13-17)
Only when our bitachon, trust in God, is tempered with spiritual humility can we overcome our rebellious inclinations and hope to remain in the land.