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Judaism: Eikev: The Golden Calf Still Echoes

The sin still resounds, but there is also the eventual reward.
Published: Thursday, August 14, 2014 8:40 AM


This week's Torah reading, Parashat Eikev, continues with the second of Moses' three farewell discourses to his beloved nation, in which he recounts the salient events of the last forty years of desert wanderings. His second discourse began last week in Parashat Va-et’chanan (Deuteronomy 4:44), and will continue until the end of Chapter 26 (in Parashat Ki Tavo, in another 4 weeks).

The word “eikev” is somewhat open to interpretation. Targum Onkelos and Targum Yonatan both render, “It will be, in return for your hearkening to these ordinances, and you will guard them and perform them, then Hashem your G-d will guard for you the covenant and the loving-kindness that He swore to your forefathers”.

Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch follows this interpretation and translates: “It will come to pass as the consequence of your hearing these legal maxims and carefully carrying them out, that Hashem your G-d will keep the covenant and the love with you that He swore to your forefathers”.

The Ibn Ezra and the Radak (in Sefer ha-Shorashim) both understand the word “eikev” to mean “ultimately, until the end of time”, both of them citing the way the word is used in Psalms 119:12. Thus per the Ibn Ezra, Hashem guarantees reward for the mitzvot, even though the reward may be delayed until the very end of the world.

The Radak is ambiguous: does he mean that the reward can be delayed, even until the end of the world? Or does he render, “If you keep these ordinances until the end of the world…”?

The Ramban defines “eikev” as “ba’avur”, approximately “for the sake of” or “because”, citing the meaning of the word in Genesis 26:5. Hence, “it will be, because you hearken to these ordinances and you guard them and perform them, Hashem your G-d will guard for you the covenant and the loving-kindness that He swore to your forefathers”.

The word “eikev” connotes “after”, hence the first understanding cited above (both Targumim and Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch).

I suggest that the conditional clause is not just the first half of the first verse of Parashat Eikev (“it will be, as a consequence of your hearkening to these ordinances and guarding them and performing them…”), and the consequence does not begin with the second half of the first verse (“…then Hashem your G-d will guard for you the covenant and the loving-kindness which He swore to your forefathers”).

Instead, the conditional clause covers the first two verses in their entirety, and the consequence begins with verse 14 (the third verse in our parashah).

Hence: “It will be, as a consequence of your hearkening to these ordinances and guarding them and performing them, and [of] Hashem your G-d’s guarding for you the covenant and the loving-kindness which He swore to your forefathers, and [of] His loving you and blessing you and multiplying you, and blessing the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your Land, your grain, your wine, and your oil, the offspring of your cattle and the flocks of your sheep and goats on the Land which He swore to your forefathers to give you – you will be the most blessed of all nations…”.

That is to say, according to this reading, it is not that Hashem guards the covenant and the loving-kindness which He swore to our forefathers as a consequence and a reward for our hearkening to the ordinances and guarding them and performing them, and that part of the covenant is that He will love us and bless us and multiply us, and bless the fruit of our womb and the fruit of our Land and so on.

Rather, our hearkening to the ordinances and guarding them and performing them, together with Hashem’s guarding the covenant and loving us and blessing us and multiplying us, and blessing the fruit of our womb and the fruit of our Land and so on, is what will make us the most blessed of all nations.

Later in the parashah (chapter 9), Moshe admonishes us not to assume that Hashem grants us victory over our enemies, the nations who occupy the Land of Israel, because of our righteousness; rather, it is because of their evil that they lose.

And then Moshe continues by reminding us of how we provoked G-d at Horeb (Mount Sinai) with the sin of the golden calf: “Remember, do not forget, how you enraged Hashem your G-d in the desert…” (Deuteronomy 9:7), and then, over the course of 34 verses (until 10:11), Moshe continues by reminding us, in excruciating detail, of that entire débâcle and of how he pleaded and prayed to G-d not to destroy us because of that sin, but to sustain us despite it.

The first commandment that G-d gave us, immediately after the sin of the golden calf, was to expel all the idolatrous inhabitants of the Land of Israel: “Be on your guard lest you seal a covenant with the inhabitant of the Land…lest he be a trap in your midst. Instead smash their altars, break their pillars, and chop down their idolatrous trees…lest you forge a covenant with the inhabitant of the Land and go astray after their gods and sacrifice to their gods…” (Exodus 34:12-15).

This warning was amply justified here: after all, this came immediately after the mixed multitude had seduced the nation into idolatry. Moshe and the entire nation had just experienced how easily idolaters among them could be “a trap in their midst”, so now was the time for God to admonish them against allowing such a débâcle to recur.

In Parashat Eikev, almost forty years later, Moshe again connects the necessity to drive the idolatrous nations out of Israel with the débâcle of the golden calf. Near the beginning of the parashah he encourages us with the promise: “Hashem will remove from you every sickness; and He will not inflict upon you any of the evil diseases of Egypt which you have known – He will inflict them on all your enemies. You will consume all the nations which Hashem your G-d gives you; our eye shall not pity them, and you will not worship their gods, for it is an entrapment for you” (Deuteronomy 7:15-16).

And Moshe continues: “Should you say in your heart: ‘These peoples are greater than me; how will I be able to dispossess them?’ – Do not fear them! Remember, remember well, what Hashem your G-d did to Pharaoh and to all Egypt, the great trials which your eyes saw, and the signs and the wonders and the mighty hand and the outstretched arm with which Hashem your G-d took you out” (vs. 17-19).

When the event actually occurred, G-d used it by immediately afterwards commanding the Children of Israel to take possession of their Land and not to allow any idolaters or other enemies to remain therein. When Moshe reminded the nation of the event, he prefaced it by giving them the same charge.

Maybe the generation which worshipped the golden calf had not fully absorbed G-d’s riposte, and in case they had not, Moshe repeated it for the generation that was about to enter the Land of Israel and conquer it. In return for hearkening to God’s ordinances, guarding them and performing them, Hashem guards for you the covenant and the loving-kindness that He swore to your forefathers. And He will ultimately pay you your reward for keeping the mitzvot. If not now, immediately, then one day, even though it may be in the far distant future.

And know that you will be – indeed, you are! – the most blessed of nations, and this is for two reasons: both as a consequence of your keeping the mitzvot, and as a consequence of G-d’s guarding the covenant which He swore to your forefathers. Because you are G-d’s nation, because “Israel is called by the Name of G-d” (Tanhuma, Kedoshim 5), G-d will make you the most blessed of nations, even though you sin.

The Midrash Lekach Tov begins its exposition on Parashat Eikev by citing the verse, “A Song of Praise of Asaph: Surely G-d is good to Israel, to the pure of heart” (Psalms 73:1). The Midrash picks up on the word “akh” (which we have translated here as “surely”, which also means “however”), and expounds: “Wherever the word ‘akh’ occurs, it implies a restriction. Asaph the composer said: ‘Surely G-d is good to Israel’ – meaning even when He sits in judgement over them, because he used the name ‘Elokim’ [G-d, connoting His attribute of strict justice, in contrast to Hashem which connotes His attribute of mercy]”.

Even when G-d punished the Children of Israel for the sin of the golden calf, He was still good to them, sustaining them in the desert.

Moshe could remind them of their sin a generation later, and they could hear the rebuke, safe and secure in the knowledge that in spite of all, they were still G-d’s nation, charged with possessing the Land of Israel.

The echoes of the sin of the golden calf yet resound: the day of the sin, the 17th of Tammuz, would become a day of disaster throughout the generations, a day on which until this very generation we still fast in mourning for Jerusalem which was besieged on this day, and for numerous other disasters which happened throughout the millennia on this day.

“Eikev” – punishment can be stretched out until the very end of time, and the punishment for the sin of the golden calf is still unfolding in our days. But even this implies a measure of comfort, because even as punishment resounds through the generations, so too are we guaranteed our eventual reward, even if it come in the far-distant future.