7/28/2010

The Promise of Ekev

[This is based on a shiur I gave this week, itself based on several older blog posts]

  דברים פרק ז  יד) בָּרוּךְ תִּהְיֶה מִכָּל הָעַמִּים לֹא יִהְיֶה בְךָ עָקָר וַעֲקָרָה וּבִבְהֶמְתֶּךָ
You shall be blessed over all peoples; there shall be no sterile or barren among you or your livestock.

Who cares if there are sterile males amongst the livestock? Not every male needs to be fertile in order for the flocks to be productive; on the contrary, only the ‘best’ males are used to fertilize the females. Is there any kind of value or ideal if there are no infertile male animals?

A few possible answers:
  1. It’s easier that way. Things can happen without the owner having to make them happen, without having to engage in husbandry. Not much net gain, but less work.
  2. The last word is only going back on the word before it. The expanded verse (without contracting by use of conjunctions) would read: There will be no barren males among you. There will be no barren females among you. There will be no barren females among your animals.
  3. We’ll have an abundance of fertile males which we’ll be able to sell to non-Jews, who aren’t recipients of this Divine blessing

As is often the case, looking at something contextually can often supply a better and deeper answer. In the present case, this specific blessing is at the beginning of the larger brakha of “Ekev,” which has some distinguishing features.

In the book of Devarim, there are a number of recapitulations of the consequences for obedience and disobedience in the Land of Israel (R’ Elchanan Samet counts 12); each one is subtly different. In this instance, the word “ekev” is key. It’s a metaphoric term that means “because” – the metaphor points to a heel, as in “on the heels of”, as a result of, as an immediate consequence.
The word עקב appears only 5 times in all of Chumash as a subordinating conjunction.
בראשית פרק כב
יז) כִּי בָרֵךְ אֲבָרֶכְךָ וְהַרְבָּה אַרְבֶּה אֶת זַרְעֲךָ כְּכוֹכְבֵי הַשָּׁמַיִם וְכַחוֹל אֲשֶׁר עַל שְׂפַת הַיָּם וְיִרַשׁ זַרְעֲךָ אֵת שַׁעַר אֹיְבָיו: יח) וְהִתְבָּרֲכוּ בְזַרְעֲךָ כֹּל גּוֹיֵי הָאָרֶץ עֵקֶב אֲשֶׁר שָׁמַעְתָּ בְּקֹלִי:

בראשית פרק כו
ג) גּוּר בָּאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת וְאֶהְיֶה עִמְּךָ וַאֲבָרְכֶךָּ כִּי לְךָ וּלְזַרְעֲךָ אֶתֵּן אֶת כָּל הָאֲרָצֹת הָאֵל וַהֲקִמֹתִי אֶת הַשְּׁבֻעָה אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּעְתִּי לְאַבְרָהָם אָבִיךָ: ד) וְהִרְבֵּיתִי אֶת זַרְעֲךָ כְּכוֹכְבֵי הַשָּׁמַיִם וְנָתַתִּי לְזַרְעֲךָ אֵת כָּל הָאֲרָצֹת הָאֵל וְהִתְבָּרֲכוּ בְזַרְעֲךָ כֹּל גּוֹיֵי הָאָרֶץ: ה) עֵקֶב אֲשֶׁר שָׁמַע אַבְרָהָם בְּקֹלִי וַיִּשְׁמֹר מִשְׁמַרְתִּי מִצְוֹתַי חֻקּוֹתַי וְתוֹרֹתָי:

במדבר פרק יד
כד) וְעַבְדִּי כָלֵב עֵקֶב הָיְתָה רוּחַ אַחֶרֶת עִמּוֹ וַיְמַלֵּא אַחֲרָי וַהֲבִיאֹתִיו אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר בָּא שָׁמָּה וְזַרְעוֹ יוֹרִשֶׁנָּה:

The last two are in this parsha, at the beginning of the blessings and the end of the curses. 7:12 and 8:20.
There are several commonalities between each instance of the term:
  • In EVERY occasion, the consequence is predicated as a reward for having hearkened (or not hearkened) to the word of God (the root שמע appears each time)
  • In EVERY instance, the promise of children is reiterated.
  • EVERY instance is related to God’s covenant with the Patriarchs.
  • In 4 of the 5 occasions, the ‘consequence’ introduced by the term ‘ekev’ is inheriting the Land of Israel. The exception is Bereishit 22:18, at the end of the Akeida. However, according to the Rashbam, the entire episode may have been a test of Avraham’s` relationship to the land.
  • 4 of the 5 instances are related specifically to brit Avot, the original covenant between God and the Abrahamic family.

Throughout the Torah, the most consistent consequences for obedience are possession of the land for ourselves and our posterity, and the land yielding its fruits to us, as an expression of the covenant between God and Abraham. Ekev seems to be a code word that invokes this covenant, and the unique character of the blessings and curses at the beginning of the parsha lies in the fact that it’s a restatement of Brit Avot. But there’s more.

The second verse of the parsha, in addition to invoking the Land of Israel as the locus of the fulfillment of God’s covenant, restates the very first brakha to man: Be fruitful and multiply. Throughout the book of Bereshit, this brakha is reiterated whenever God establishes or re-establishes His Covenant. This is straight through until Ve-Yechi, where Yaakov takes the birth of Ephraim and Menashe as the ultimate fulfillment of the promise that God made to him during his second visit to Beit-El. In essence, Bereishit charts the course of this brakha from Adam through Yaakov, after which it becomes the blessing of a whole family, not just an individual. The brakha continues at the beginning of Shemot – the description of the Israelite population explosion uses those terms of pru u-revu. As is well known, Chazal comment on that description that sextuplets were the norm. This blessing is one of uncontrolled fertility and boundless virility. In fact, before that brakha was given to man, it was given to animals. The brakha of Ekev, as the manifestation of this original brakha extends to the animal kingdom as well. Thus, the animals will also experience this incredible fecundity.

Conceptually, the promise and consequences of Ekev bear similarity to the man’s initial conditions in the world: fruitfulness and control of the land on one hand, versus exile and unproductivity on the other. In Eden, Adam’s disobedience resulted in exile and in having to work much harder to be productive. It also carried a terrible curse that affected human fecundity – the pain of childbirth. And in fact, the first time that the root עקב is used in the Torah, meaning “heel”, is related to that first disobedience and subsequent exile: ve-hu yeshufenu akeiv – in the sentencing of the Snake.

The upshot of this connection to Eden is that life in the Land of Israel is to correspond to life in Eden – disobedience results in expulsion. It also means that it is insufficient for the goal of Jewish life in the land to be the fulfillment of “Jewishness” – it is supposed to bring about the fullness of our humanity.

What does that mean? What are the duties or values that “Ekev” calls upon us to embody? What “humanity” does it wish us to fulfill?

The opening verse of the parsha refers specifically to obeying Mishpatim – the laws that govern interpersonal relations. Throughout Tanakh, Mishpat, law, is seen as a key to redemption – Tziyon be-mishpat tipadeh.  Rashi, as is well known, speaks of the “little things that one tramples underfoot.” Combining these two elements yields an awesome insight – that the fullness of our humanity, the ultimate goal of life in Israel, is realized through the ‘little things’ of our interactions with other humans. We might have been tempted to say that Rashi's instructing us to be vigilant about the observance of lesser rituals, the small print of Orach Chayim. But the presence of mishpatimtzedakah and chesed, taking care of widows and orphans, welcoming the stranger, etc. – radically alters the implications of Rashi’s words. It's the 'little' and 'trampled', routine engagement with other people which form the basis of this promise.

There is often a great danger that when one believes in a “big idea,” in a “greater good,” it ends up obscuring the “little things” that we trample underfoot. There is a tendency to see the blood of revolution as inevitable, to accept collateral damage, to regard evil as “necessary.” Rashi is warning us about the dangers of focusing on the greater good and allowing the individual to get caught in its gears.

The following passage expresses those dangers better than I ever could. It’s from a book called Life and Fate by Russian-Jewish author named Vasily Grossman, and it appears in an essay called “Beyond Memory” by Emanuel Levinas, in his book In the Time of Nations. Grossman writes:

...I do not believe in the good, I believe in kindness...Not even Herod shed blood in the name of evil...

Humanity had never yet heard those words [from the New Testament - AR]: "Judge not, that ye shall not be judged...Love your enemies, do good to them that hate you. Bless them that curse you. Pray for those who curse you..."
What did that doctrine of peace and love bring to humanity? The tortures of the Inquisition, the struggle against heresies in France, Italy, and Germany, the war between Catholics and Protestants...

I have been able to see in action the implacable force of the idea of social good born in our country (i.e., Russia - AR). I saw it again in 1937; I saw that in the name of an idea of good as humane as Christianity, people were exterminated. I saw entire villages starving; in Siberia I saw the children of deported peasants dying in the snow...

There exists, side by side with this so terrible greater good, human kindness in everyday life. It is the kindness of an old lady who gives a piece of bread to a convict along the roadside. It is the kindness of a soldier who holds his canteen out to a wounded enemy. The kindness of youth taking pity on old age, the kindness of a peasant who hides a Jew in his barn. It is the kindness of those prison guards who risk their own freedom, smuggle the letters of prisoners out to wives and mothers...

The history of man is the struggle of evil trying to crush the tiny seed of humanity. But if even now the human has not been killed in man, evil will never prevail.
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