Skip to content

Parashat Ekev 5772 – 08/08/2012

Parashat Ekev


Submitted by Robert Rabinoff

And to cleave to [Gd] (11:22)

[To cleave to Gd] in the end [i.e. after death] – Ibn Ezra

And it is also plausible that the term “cleaving” includes that you should keep Gd and your love of Him in mind constantly – your thoughts should not depart from Him even when you walk on the way, when you retire and when you arise, until one achieves the level that his conversation with people is only with his mouth and tongue, but his heart is not with them, rather it is before Gd. – Ramban

What does it mean to “cleave” to Gd?  How do we cleave to Gd?  Is it something we can do, or does it just happen?  Can we practice it?  Do we need to practice it?

To begin to understand this, perhaps we need to start with some understanding of Gd, and an understanding of our nature as human beings.  Gd of course we cannot even begin to understand.  Gd created us, our souls, our minds, our bodies; how can the creature comprehend the Creator?  How can the finite comprehend the infinite?  Yet we do have Gd’s Revelation to us, where He identifies Himself as pure Being, the source of everything finite, Unified, unchanging, eternal.

Our nature as human beings is of course substantially more modest than that.  We are finite, existing in a small body on a nondescript planet orbiting a very average star on the outskirts of a modest galaxy.  We exist for a short time by cosmic standards; the Psalmist compares our life to yesterday when it is gone.  Yet we are more than just a body; we have a soul infused in our body as Torah tells us: and He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the Man became a living soul.  Our Sages tell us that the human soul is “carved from Gd’s Throne of Glory, a portion of Gd’s own nature.”  It is this dual nature of ours – body and soul, earthly and heavenly, finite and infinite, that gives us the potential to “cleave” to Gd.

Since the soul and the body are of opposite natures, they pull us in different directions.  The body craves physical pleasure and flees discomfort.

There is nothing wrong with this – it is the instinct responsible for the body’s survival and growth.  The soul on the other hand is non-material; nothing in the material world can give it pleasure.  The “food” of the soul is ideas, abstractions, the non-concrete, the “good.”  The ultimate direction of the body is downwards, towards the earth from which it is formed, while the ultimate direction of the soul is upward, towards the heavens from which it was created.  It is this upward motion of the soul, that is, its expansion out of the boundaries provided it by the body, which allows us to “cleave” to Gd.

Now we can better understand the difference in approach between Ibn Ezra and Ramban.  According to Ibn Ezra, cleaving to Gd is only possible after death.  That is, during one’s earthly life the attachment of the soul to the body is so thoroughgoing and intense, that complete transcendence is impossible.  Perhaps this is related to the Talmudic dictum that there are certain sins (ones that attach the individuality to the material world most strongly) for which only death can atone (see e.g. Yoma 86a).  In any event, it certainly seems to be the common experience that any kind of closeness with Gd in this earthly life appears to be reserved to a chosen few holy men and women who are somehow set apart, perhaps from birth, for spiritual leadership (these folks are not necessarily the “official” religious leadership either).  The rest of us demonstrate by our behavior how far we are from “cleaving” to Gd, or even having more than a passing awareness of Gd’s existence.

Ramban, on the other hand, indicates that “cleaving” to Gd is possible, and that in fact Torah requires it of us.  His definition of “cleaving” to Gd is that one achieves the level that his conversation with people is only with his mouth and tongue, but his heart is not with them, rather it is before Gd.  In other words, even during the time that the person’s mind and body are engaged in their normal activities – walking, talking, buying, selling – there is a part of their awareness that is before Gd.  Now this concept, that part of our awareness is engaged in the commerce of daily living while another part of our awareness is absorbed in Gd, is not something that can be “done” on the level of thought alone.  If you don’t believe this, try it.  But don’t try going about your normal activities while maintaining thoughts of Gd, if those activities involve operating heavy machinery or driving a car or filling prescriptions for people, or any task that you have to focus on to get correct!  You will not only not be able to maintain your thoughts of Gd, you will create a disaster for yourself in the other activity!

Rather I think what Ramban means is something like this.  We set aside periods during the day when our primary focus is on Gd – times of prayer and meditation primarily, but also when we perform all the other mitzvot with which an observant Jew’s day is filled.  What happens during these times is that our mind expands, becomes filled, to whatever extent, with the light of the Divine.  Then, as we return to “normal” (i.e. worldly) activity, this sense of expansion and Divinity fades, but not completely – some of it, perhaps just a faint memory, remains.  The next time we say a b’rachah, or go davven, the expansion of the mind starts from a little better place, and perhaps goes a little further.  (Of course if we have transgressed Gd’s Will in the interim, that causes a more severe fading of this “memory of the Divine” and also blocks the expansion of our mind when we do go to say a b’rachah or davven.)  As we continue to grow in this manner, it becomes easier and easier for the mind spontaneously to maintain awareness of Gd along with whatever activity is taking place.  The two do not interfere with one another, rather they are on different levels altogether.  Our awareness has become identified with the infinite, unbounded, unchanging Master of the universe, while our individuality is able to carry on its normal activities with heightened sensitivity and therefore greater success, as the Psalmist says: The righteous shall flourish (92:12).  Our bodies and minds are with our friends, our work, our families, but our selves, which we know to be infinite, that part of us dwells at home, with Gd, at all times and under all circumstances, in a perfectly natural and unforced way.  May we all merit such a level of awareness!


Pirke Avot, Chapter 4

Mishnah 13

R. Eliezer ben Ya’akov says:

When one performs a mitzvah one acquires an advocate.

When one commits a sin, one acquires an accuser.

The “advocate” and the “accuser” (defender and prosecutor) that one acquires from performing mitzvot or committing transgressions accompany one to the Heavenly Tribunal at the final judgment.  In the vein of Ramban’s description of “cleaving” to Gd, perhaps we can interpret the advocate as an influence that helps us maintain awareness of Gd in a natural way, whereas an accuser is an influence that interferes with or clouds that awareness.  For when we get to the world of souls, and prepare to assume our place in the Heavenly Academy, basking in Gd’s effulgence and learning Torah from His Mouth, how much light we can endure and how much supernal Torah we can absorb will depend on the purity of our soul, and that depends critically on how we live our lives in our physical bodies.  Let’s be sure to put ourselves in a position to experience maximum bliss when the time comes!