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Parashat Eikev 5780

August 6, 2020

A D’var Torah for Parashat Eikev
By Cantor Sandy Horowitz (’14)

In an episode of the Peanuts comic strip by Charles Schultz, Linus tells his sister Lucy that he wants to be a doctor. She replies in her big-sister way, “You could never be a doctor, you know why? Because you don’t love mankind, that’s why!” To which Linus replies:

This seems to illustrate Moses’ feeling towards the Israelites in Parashat Eikev.

One can’t argue with his commitment to the Israelites as a people (“mankind”), while at the same time we experience his deep frustration with their behavior. As they prepare to enter the Promised Land, Moses’ words include a series of rebukes as he tells them, “You have been rebelling against the Lord since the day I have known you” (Deut. 9:24). He recounts their transgressions in detail – how they built a golden calf idol, and how the scouts who spied on the Promised Land showed little faith in God’s promise – “You did not believe Him, nor did you obey Him” (Deut. 9:23). He reminds them that God wanted to destroy them out of divine anger at their many transgressions, and that they were saved only because Moses himself argued on their behalf. Moses seems to be having an extended “Linus moment”.

Perhaps, however, Moses’ recounting of the peoples’ sins has a purpose which goes beyond his personal feelings of frustration. He tells them:

“Not because of your righteousness or because of the honesty of your heart, do you come to possess their land… but [rather] in order to fulfill the oath that the Lord swore to your forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. (Deut. 9:5).”

Moses wants them to know that they are not being given the land based on their own merit. For they have little merit. Rather, they are the inheritors of a promise that was made to their ancestors a very long time ago.  And as such, these resentful and rebellious individuals are being reminded that they belong to something greater than themselves. When they enter the land and encounter other nations and other peoples, they must remember that, by means of their heritage, they are one people, God’s people, Am Israel.

In the new land, reward and punishment will affect the Israelites in a way that they will not have experienced before. While in the wilderness, punishment was handed out to those who specifically transgressed God’s laws or otherwise made God angry. When Miriam was perceived as having spoken against her brother Moses, God afflicted her with skin disease (Num. 12:1-10); no one else was affected. When Korah staged a rebellion against Moses and Aaron, God caused the earth to swallow him up along with his followers (Num. 16:31-32), while the non-rebels went unpunished.

In the new land, God’s Presence will no longer be so direct. The Israelites will now experience God’s pleasure and God’s wrath, reward and punishment, by means of divinely-decreed acts of nature: If the people choose to follow the commandments, God tells them, “I will give the rain of your land in its time” (Deut. 11:14). But if they turn away and worship idols, Moses tells them that “the wrath of the Lord will be kindled against you, and He will close off the heavens, and there will be no rain.” (Deut. 11:17).

Providing or withholding rain as a means of reward and punishment means that everyone is equally affected, regardless of who sinned and who did not. Acts of nature do not discriminate. If there is no rain, all the crops will fail; with rain, there is prosperity for everyone. In this post-wilderness existence, the Israelites will be compelled to experience collective responsibility.

Parashat Eikev’s teaching about collective responsibility has deep meaning for us, particularly in this time of the global pandemic. For if we honor social distancing, and if we wear our masks while in the presence of others, then – God willing – the threat of Covid-19 will abate. But if we do not heed the laws of science and common sense, if we do not respond to the call to act for the sake of others as well as ourselves, then our future, whether personal, national, or global, will continue to look very bleak.

The same may be said for global warming, or social or economic inequality, or any number of ills that affect us as a community. As with our ancestors, we’re all in this together. We don’t have to love or even like each other, but we must find a way to care about “mankind” – all of humanity – in order to survive and so that we may prosper.
Cantor Sandy Horowitz (AJR ’14) is an independent cantor and tutor who has served as AJR faculty.