Judaism: Eikev: Our Father In Heaven, Our Identity on Earth
My wife and I have a very simple theory of child-raising: we want our children to be as independent as possible as quickly as possible. We want to teach them to make intelligent and productive choices. Then we want to allow them to mess up (not too badly) and learn about consequences. Finally, we want them stand on their own; as capable and forward-thinking contributors to our world.
While their successes and failures as adults may reflect on us, they will fundamentally belong to them. We will have done what we could have. We will be left with the hope that our values are passed on and that our children will be productive adults who connect with G-d and blunt the risks of our natural world.
In a few generations, we will be gone and forgotten. We might be remembered only as names on the future’s version of a genealogical website. Nonetheless, our values might be sustained. Our values might be sustained and in that way, we might remain woven into this world – unseen, unknown, but present.
In that way, our values might be revealed as truth.
In the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy), and in particular in the parsha (Torah reading) of Eikev, there is a similar dynamic at play.
We see in this week’s parsha that while in the desert we were clothed and fed and watered, like children. And we were chastised, like children. As it says in the first reading of Eikev, “as a man chastens his son, so the Lord chastised you.”
Unlike earlier readings, the 40 years in the desert are presented not as a punishment, but as a test. As with all great tests in Torah, the goal is to develop the attribute being tested – not simply reveal something that is already present. Just as we teach values to our children, Hashem was teaching values to our child-nation.
But there is a difference. If my children succeed despite ignoring my values, it might be that they got lucky. And if they fail despite embracing my values, it might be that fate was against them.
Our relationship to our national Father is different. Hashem rules the world. There is no luck or fate. He is Truth. And so our successes and our failures are direct testaments to that Truth.
Early in the parsha, we see the Anakim, with their fortifications to the heavens – or perhaps against them. Many nations will fall slowly, but not the Anakim. They will fall instantly. And their collapse is presented as a lesson to us. If we fail to embrace the values of Hashem, we will be destroyed.
To understand this, we must go back to the origins of the Exodus. Hashem promised Avram offspring like the stars of the heaven. And Avram believed him and was counted for righteousness. No brit (or contract) was required.
But then Hashem told Avram “I brought you out of Haran.” And Avram balked. It is one thing to imagine G-d as the embodiment of your values. It is quite another to imagine an immaterial G-d as a fully independent entity; as the driver of actions you thought you’d taken on your own.
Avram demands a contract. And he is given one. He is promised that his children will inherit the land, but only after 400 years of slavery.
And when the Jewish people come out of Egypt, there will be no question that “I brought you out of Egypt.” When the Jewish people come out of Egypt, there will be no question that G-d “will be what [G-d] will be” – not as we would imagine Him to be.
In this light, the Exodus is a demonstration of Hashem’s presence in the world. We are simply the tool. We are expected to learn the lesson Avram did not yet grasp.
With the sin of the calf, we fail in that lesson. We imagine our amalgamated G-d, the representation of our national power, to be our liberator. We imagine that we brought ourselves out of Egypt just as Avram imagined he brought himself out of Haran.
And so Hashem wants us eliminated.
We do not serve our purpose.
This it is why forgetting the source of our gifts in the Land has such a steep price. If we are in the Land, and if we have multiplied like the stars, then Hashem’s contract with the forefathers has been fulfilled. And if we no longer testify to Hashem’s unique role, then we no longer serve a function.
It is Moshe (Moses) who steps in to rescue us after the sin of the Calf. In the previous parsha, Hashem says to Moshe rav lach, (‘it is enough for you’). The words are in the feminine. From his very first action protecting a Jew, Moshe serves as our protective national mother. But Moshe does more than protect us against of the past, he protects us against the sins of the future.
We see this in the unusual history that dominates the core of this parsha. In this history, things are out of order, problems are mischaracterized and solutions are shifted. The most telling change is that again and again, Moshe seems to return to his second 40 days on the mountain. For 40 years, he is returning to those 40 days. For 40 years, he is arguing for another relationship; not one of an unwanted and rebellious people who can simply be removed once the contract is up. For 40 years, he is pleading for something else.
He gets something else, but it is not a perfect relationship. In the original telling, Betzalel makes the ark that is designed to hold the Tablets, the luchot. But here, Moshe makes an Ark of shittim wood and places the stone luchot within it.
In the materials of the Mishkan, wood and stone occupy unique places. Stone is almost never used. It represents unchanging permanence. This is why idols are made of stone – they can outlast many generations of men, and it seems to give them power. Moshe had to smash the first luchot because there was no place for the permanence of G-d’s word in the people who thought they’d brought themselves from Egypt.
Wood, on the other hand, rots. It represents not the spiritual core of man, but his other inclinations. shittim is a root which literally suggests low-level hatred or an enduring grudge. This is the material of the box the luchot are placed within.
The permanent and direct word of G-d, his divrai habrit (‘words of covenant’) are placed in the context of imperfect human emotion. We have the covenant despite our imperfection.
Moshe accomplishes this with an argument that is ultimately simple: if we do not survive, then the testimony of the land we came from will be that Hashem mibli yochlet, literally ‘lacked the ability’ to bring us into the land because of His hatred. So we must survive. And our survival becomes a testament to Hashem’s place in this world.
But survival is not enough. Ultimately, we must – like any adult – integrate the chastisement of our childhood. We must live Hashem’s values and show the world that those values are the values of blessings and Truth.
We must do this by teaching the chastisement we received in the desert and passing it on to the next generation.
Perhaps this was the trait that Hashem was ‘testing’ for in the desert. The first generation passed on what they saw; we know they did because Moshe says to this generation, “you saw the chastisement of Egypt” when in fact they did not.
Perhaps this is the trait that enables us to endure. We are a stiff-necked people. As much as we rebel against G-d, we refuse to allow the world to strip us of our identity. And as long as we identify as the children of Israel, we are a testament to G-d’s existence in this world.
And if we go further, and embody the values of Hashem, then we will be blessed.
It is by embodying those values and passing the lessons of the Exodus to the next generation that we ensure our values will endure.
This is how our values will be revealed as Truth.
And this is how our generation can remain in this world; unseen, unknown but present.