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Parashat Ekev 5776 — 08/27/2016

Parashat Ekev 5776 — 08/27/2016

Devarim 7:12-11:25

In Parashat Shelach the spies come back with a damaging report about the Land of Israel. While acknowledging its bounty, they tell the people that they will be unable to conquer it, as the inhabitants are too formidable. Their strategy “works,” but at a terrible price. The ten spies (excluding Yehoshua and Caleb who try, unsuccessfully, to thwart the plot) die a horrible death, and the people are condemned to wander in the desert for 40 years, until a new generation, untainted by Egyptian slavery, idolatry and immorality, is ready to enter the Land.

Many explanations have been proferred to explain why these 10 distinguished individuals would have wanted to spread this evil report about the Land of Israel. One of the most exculpatory of these is the following: During the Exodus from Egypt and the sojourn in the desert (a bit over a year at this point) the nation had been living on miracles – the Exodus, the Splitting of the Sea, the manna, the well, the clouds of glory that protected them and smoothed their way for them. Even so, there had been problems – most notably the sin of the golden calf. The spies reasoned that if it was hard to keep the faith while living a miraculous existence, what would happen to our spirituality when we had to live a “normal” existence, plowing and planting, trading and doing all the things people have to do to prosper and grow? If we were weak when we saw Gd’s miracles right on the surface, what would happen when Gd hides Himself behind the laws of nature?

In Parashat Ekev, as in all of Devarim, we are at the end of the 40 years of wandering. The new generation, raised in freedom, is about to enter the Land of Israel. R. Steinsaltz sets the scene:

The Torah needed to recount the major events because many of them occurred in the first and second years after Israel had left Egypt, and most of Moses’ current audience could not clearly remember all these events. … These people who are about to enter the Land are members of a new generation; for them, Egypt is either an old memory or a place known only from stories told by their parents. In contrast, their present setting is very strange, almost timeless, a state in which they encamp, remain static, or journey on without a clear direction and without a specific purpose. … for now, these people are suspended between a blurred past and an unclear, albeit promising future.

This is true of Devarim in general. Speaking specifically of our parashah, R. Steinsaltz writes:

This parasha is situated at the point of transition from the special, unworldly existence of the wilderness to normalization. The Land of Israel is depicted here as a different world, one that seems to resemble our own ordinary world. Life, which until now has been under the general protection of Gd’s providence and marked by certainty, is about to be individuated into deeds, policies, and personal responsibility, and marked with the awareness that there are no longer steps that transcend the actions of human beings.

This leads us into an interesting discussion of the nature of miraculous living – what actually is a miracle. On the one hand, when a large body of water splits and dries up so that a procession of several million people can cross comfortably on dry land, and only returns to its normal state in time to drown a pursuing army, that is clearly miraculous. Even though Gd “caused a strong East wind to blow all that night,” thus making some semblance of use of the Laws of Nature, Gd’s absolute control of the Laws of Nature became perfectly obvious to everyone involved. Indeed, that was the point – Gd wanted everyone, Jews and non-Jews, to get a glimpse behind the curtain so to speak, so that there would no longer be any question as to the reality underlying all manifestation.

On the other hand, when a farmer goes out and plants seeds, the rains come at the right time, there is enough warm sunlight, but it’s not too hot, the fruits ripen and are harvested, this all seems to be just part of nature. Everything goes according to the same laws as they always have, year in and year out. Now of course, in the Land of Israel one cannot count on the annual flooding of the Nile, nor irrigation from the Tigris and Euphrates – it is dependent on the rains, and as the Torah makes it clear, having proper rains depends on our acting in accordance with Gd’s Will. Nonetheless, this is a hidden miracle; had Torah not told us the connection between our behavior and Gd’s provision of life-giving rain, it’s unlikely we would have figured it out by ourselves. The connection between fossil fuel consumption and climate change is right there for anyone to see and does not directly involve anything to do with Gd, and we are just now awakening to its reality!

Finally, it has become almost trite to say that “Life is a miracle.” It’s not quite as trite when you hold a new baby grandchild in your hands of course, but nonetheless, we don’t really mean that Gd had to alter the laws of nature to get this baby born (in most cases). Nevertheless, the fact that we exist at all is not self-evident. Did Gd have to create the universe? If so (and that would constrain Gd!), did He have to create man, who is self-aware?

These are big questions and tomes would not answer them, so I would just like to make some suggestions that one can ponder. I would suggest that how we view these issues is a function of the level of our consciousness. In our ordinary, waking state of consciousness, we perceive ourselves as bound by our own individuality, and we perceive other objects as bound in their individualities. Objects interact with one another, and we expect that those interactions will be according to the appropriate laws of nature. And in fact, they are. Sometimes, those laws of nature conspire to create an amazing effect, like the nascent Israel’s beating back 5 Arab armies. If you look below the surface though, you see how disorganized and poorly trained and equipped those armies were, and you “understand.” Miracles occurred long ago in books, before we had science and accurate record-keeping. We feel we don’t need Gd in this picture.

As our consciousness expands, we begin to understand that our self is not bound by our individuality. We are infinite in nature, but the objects of our perception are the same as they were, bound by the laws of nature. As we continue to grow, we begin to perceive the progressively more refined levels of the objects of perception, until, eventually, we recognize that every object is at its basis the same unbounded pure existence that is at our own basis. In this unified state of awareness we still see differences, but we perceive them as different waves, all rising from the same ocean, varied on the surface but unified at their basis. There is nothing that is not pure Existence, pure potentiality. And pure potentiality can be whatever it chooses to be. Gd chooses to have a universe where He is hidden to most of us behind the laws of nature. Occasionally He pulls back the curtain so we can see the reality. Our job is to get ourselves behind the curtain permanently, so we can enjoy fully the ongoing miracle of life.

Haftarah: Yishaya 49:14-51:3

For Hashem shall comfort Zion, He shall comfort all her ruins, He shall make her wilderness like Eden and her wasteland like a garden of Hashem; joy and gladness shall be found there, thanksgiving and the sound of music. (51:3)

This verse is included in a long series of verses that are recited at the end of Ma’ariv after Shabbat is over, to comfort us for the loss of the peace and holiness of Shabbat and to prepare us for our re-entry into “normal” life. One day as I was praying for the restoration of Jerusalem (in the daily Amidah) I was thinking about the notion of a “Heavenly Jerusalem” that is supposed to descend when Mashiach comes. It struck me that, just as the molecular “layer” of creation and the atomic “layer” and the subatomic “layer” are all here, in the same place, at the same time, interpenetrating, so the “Heavenly Jerusalem” is also here, right now, interpenetrating the earthly Jerusalem. It only requires us to remove the blinders on our eyes so that we can see it, and the stresses and shortsightedness and hidden agendas that hinder our action so that we can make it manifest for everyone to see as well. This is the job of every human being, but it is the job Gd has particularly given to the Jewish people – to be a “light unto the nations.”


Reflections on This Week’s Torah Portion

by Steve Sufian

Parashat Eikev

The deepest level of Torah is experiencing Torah as the basic vibration of Gd. This, in Kabbalah, is called “Sod”, Divine Insight. This Divine Insight Blesses us with return to our original state as One. Say, “One with the One”, or say “One”, whichever is most comfortable.

This is the purpose of life—to connect with Gd and to return to the primordial state of One so that we remember that we are All-in-All, playing “let’s pretend”, playing “Hide and Seek”—One pretends to hide from Itself, from It’s Unlimitedness, and pretends to be limited, leaves and trees, stones and seas, you and me.

The sound of Torah, the feeling of Torah, helps us most in this return, this Teshuvah. But the meaning helps also.

On the meaning level, the story level, this Parsha begins with reassurance by Moses that Gd is kind, supports us when we adhere to His Torah; it continues with the reassurance that even though we depart from Torah, as in worshipping idols (partial values of Reality) Gd forgives. Moses begins by saying “Eikev Tishamun”: roughly translated as “because you hearken”—because you hearken (attune) to God’s commandments and do them, Gd will bless you, all will be well, sickness will depart and your enemies will not stand before you.

He reminds our ancestors — and us, since Moses’ words are Torah, which is eternal—that Gd provided manna (food that was new to them and which they could not plant and grow) to them when in the desert to teach them “man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” and this provided a connection with God, which is the purpose of life. It provided a humbling of their ego to prepare them to enter into Canaan, the Promised Land, the land of synchronicity, in which the strands of restriction (Mitzrayim, Egypt) are integrated with the emptiness/transcendence of Midbar, the desert and life flows in attunement with Gd.

The reassurance continues, as he describes Canaan as a land that Gd cares for.

And he warns to destroy the idols of the land and not to make an idol of one’s own personality and body by thinking that our accomplishments are done by us rather than through our connection to Gd. Although this is a warning, it is reassuring because it implies that if we do destroy idols and stay connected to Gd through following His Torah, through opening ourselves to Him, through loving Him, that all be well.

Further re-assurance comes with the repetition of the second chapter of the Shema, a chapter which confirms Gd’s intentions and the benefits of following His Will.

Moses gives more reassurance by describing how Gd answers prayer; specifically, his prayer to Gd not to destroy Israel or Aaron after the idolatrous sin of the Golden Calf.

Even in plain meaning, these are very reassuring.

But on the symbolic level, they are more deeply meaningful and on the comparison level, when we compare the results of Good actions to Bad ones.

Most important, at the level of Divine Insight, the level of Direct Experience, we directly experience Torah as inherent in Gd, inherent in One, inherent in the One that is the Reality of our individual personality, physiology, behavior and world. Then we have returned and our life is Blessed and Blesses.