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Parashat Eikev

by Gideon Sylvester | Published on July 8, 2008

This week’s Parashah describes our duty to go and conquer the Land of Israel. It tells us not to be afraid since the great beauty and holi­ness of the Land of Israel has been assigned to the Jewish people. But we must recog­nize the priv­i­leges we have been given; each time we eat a meal, we must thank God for the food and the good land that he has given us. Rav Hirsch explains, para­dox­i­cally the more bounty we receive from God, the easier it is to fall into the trap of thinking we have achieved every­thing for ourselves, to forget our Creator and the moral stan­dards he demands of us.

These dangers are not merely theo­ret­ical. Moshe lists the sins of the Jewish people from the Golden Calf which they built at Mount Sinai onwards. So we should not think that it is because of our right­eous­ness that we are given the land, that is not so. The Jewish people did not always excel in the desert; rather it was the wicked­ness of the existing popu­la­tion that caused God to hand the land over to us.

The Ramban explains that a major reason that we are enti­tled to Eretz Yisrael is histor­ical. God promised it to our fore­fa­thers and even the mistakes that we made and the occa­sional wicked deeds that we did were not enough to over­ride the promises made to our ancestors.

But even the promise made to Abraham took a long time to come to fruition. A famous Midrash states that while the Canaanites were still living in the land, Abraham’s nephew Lot wanted to cash in the Divine promise and claim it all for himself and his descen­dants. He even began to graze his cattle on the land, but Abraham was insis­tent that he could not take anything until the time was right and God was ready to hand it over to them. A stun­ning Midrash says that Abraham muzzled his cattle so that they could not eat grass of the Land of Israel until it belonged to him.

Abraham’s approach to the Land of Israel modeled the Rambam’s idea that although in most person­ality traits we should always aim for the middle way, avoiding any extremes, we should follow the Mishna’s advice in trying to be as modest as possible (Rambam Hichot Deot 3:3 and Mishna Avot 4:4).

Perhaps the greatest test of our modesty is the way that we treat the vulner­able in our society and the Parashah then tells us the impor­tance of caring for the orphan, the widow and the stranger and making sure that they are well fed and clothed. Rav Hirsch teaches us that equality before the law and our treat­ment of the stranger and the vulner­able around us will be the hall­mark of the Jewish people following the ways of God — a person is enti­tled to care and respect simply by virtue of their humanity.

So whilst our Parashah told us of the great priv­i­lege of living in the land, it also warns us that the land comes with enor­mous moral respon­si­bility and this is reflected in its geog­raphy. Whereas other coun­tries (espe­cially Egypt) come with a ready water supply, in Israel there is little natural water, we are depen­dent on the annual rain­fall — the climate of Israel teaches us that we must constantly pray to God and fulfill his laws. Our ability to dwell here is depen­dent on that. The Torah tells us that God’s eyes are on the land from the begin­ning of the year till its end, which Rav Hirsch explains means that we cannot carry over our agri­cul­tural successes over from one year to the next. Each year we will be judged anew and our ability to grow crops and produce food will be depen­dent on our moral behaviour.

The Parashah ends with the second para­graph of the Shemah which warns that whilst God will reward us for good behav­iour, our claim to the Land of Israel is not auto­matic. We will perish from our land if we do not keep Torah and behave as caring, moral human beings.

Zionism should be a great source of pride for us and we should support our country in every way we can. At times, we are disap­pointed by the very slow progress of the peace process and at times we feel disil­lu­sioned with the search for peace. But the Torah warns that whilst our secu­rity must not be compro­mised, we must not lose our moral compass and the need to keep our own behav­iour in check.

As the Gemara says (Sotah 5), when God finds an arro­gant person, he says, “There is no room for this person and myself to live together in the world.”

Shabbat Shalom and have a great week

Rabbi Gideon Sylvester served as Rabbi for the United Synagogue in Britain, worked as an Adviser to the Minister for Diaspora Affairs at the Office of the Prime Minister of Israel, and taught at a number of Yeshivot. He is currently a senior Jewish Educator at Merchavim – the Institute for Shared Citizenship in Israel, works at Ohr Torah Stone Institutions, and writes regu­larly for the Jewish Chronicle, all while contin­uing his work with the United Synagogue as their Rabbi in Israel.

This Dvar Torah expands on themes that Gideon Sylvester published in Makom about his Area C trip. See that article for more.

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