Parashat Ekev continues with recounting the events that the People of Israel went through. We need to remember, that Moshe is talking to a new generation, that did not witness these experiences. It starts with a what if: if you will fulfill the laws, God will keep His Covenant with the Patriarchs:
If you will listen (obey, harken) to these rules and observe them carefully, Adonai your God will observe for you the Covenant and the grace He made on oath with your fathers.
וְהָיָה עֵקֶב תִּשְׁמְעוּן אֵת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים הָאֵלֶּה וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֹתָם וְשָׁמַר יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לְךָ אֶת הַבְּרִית וְאֶת הַחֶסֶד אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע לַאֲבֹתֶיךָ׃
We will return to this verse later; for now, there is an interesting small detail worth noticing. The Hebrew phrase for “if you will obey” uses an unusual Hebrew word EKEV (עֵקֶב), rather than IM (אִם). The additional meanings of EKEV are because of, to follow. That emphasizes the imperativeness of following the rules, not just listening to the words.
In Ekev there are no references to many specific rules except for a few. Do fair and impartial justice, do not exploit the weak and deprived (e.g., orphans and widows). Love the Ger: the foreigner, the stranger, the dweller, the Jew by choice. These are all social directives and have nothing to do with religion! It is quite impressive because as old as may this text be it is so very true today.
Instead, there are abundance of sentences that describe the good that will be the share of Israel. Then, there are a few sentences that remind the People of Israel the strength and credibility of The Divine. These words come from God that walked with you in the desert for 40 years and provided all your needs: Your feet did not have blisters, your dresses did not tear, and you suffered no hunger. The Almighty that did all these miracles is the One that makes all the promises listed in the Parasha. Moshe hardly mentions his role in all that happened to the People. Its not about him, the hero that tells the story. It is all the hand of God.
Moshe continues to describe the chronicles of Israel, and reminds the People of their transgressions. The betrayal in the Lord with the golden calf and so many other incidents. He does that to show to the People the mercifulness of HaShem, and how He keeps faithful to the Covenant. Moshe reminds them what he himself did to avert the wrath of God from their transgressions. He does it not because of his own vanity, but to remind them of the weight of his own words.
What is it that God Expects of Us?
There is a single verse that says it all (Deuteronomy 10:12):
And now, O Israel, what is it that Adonai your God ask of you? Only this: to revere with awe Adonai your God, to walk (follow) in His paths, to love Him and to serve Adonai your God with all your heart and soul.
וְעַתָּה יִשְׂרָאֵל מָה יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ שֹׁאֵל מֵעִמָּךְ כִּי אִם לְיִרְאָה אֶת יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לָלֶכֶת בְּכׇל דְּרָכָיו וּלְאַהֲבָה אֹתוֹ וְלַעֲבֹד אֶת יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּכׇל לְבָבְךָ וּבְכׇל נַפְשֶׁךָ׃
We understand the reason for this request in the next two verses: “…for your own good.” It is certainly not to boast God’s ego, because (verse 14) God has it all: “…to Adonai your God belong the heaven, and the heaven of heavens, the earth, with all that is within them”.
The Hebrew word that expresses revere, awe, is Yir-ah, commonly translated as fear. Rabbi Moshe Ḥayim Luzzatto quoted in his book “Path of the Upright” this verse as the goal and the process to achieve holiness. One takes the initial steps because of fear. It may be fear of punishment, or fear of doing something that could have bad consequences. As one gets closer to the Supernal, the fear is replaced by awe and reverence. Eventually, the motivation to conduct one’s live according to these recommendations is pure love. Reflecting what motivates us to do things for our dear ones can explain this idea. We act out of love and not because the fear of punishment.
Rabbi Ḥanina Adds another layer to this verse (Talmud, Berakhot 33b): Everything is in the hands of Heaven, except for fear (awe, reverence) of Heaven. Man has free will to serve God or not.
This is a perfect sageway to discuss the second paragraph of the Shema, which is originated in Parashat Ekev.
V’Hayah – the Second Part of the Shema
The Text Itself
The first part that starts with Shema Yisrael is in Parashat VaEtchanan and the third part is in Selach Lecha. In a separate article I discussed the practice (standing or not) when reciting the Shema. The second portion of the Shema is in Parashat Ekev (Deuteronomy 11:13-22):
וְהָיָ֗ה אִם־שָׁמֹ֤עַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ֙ אֶל־מִצְוֺתַ֔י אֲשֶׁ֧ר אָנֹכִ֛י מְצַוֶּ֥ה אֶתְכֶ֖ם הַיּ֑וֹם לְאַהֲבָ֞ה אֶת־יְהֹוָ֤ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶם֙ וּלְעׇבְד֔וֹ בְּכׇל־לְבַבְכֶ֖ם וּבְכׇל־נַפְשְׁכֶֽם׃
וְנָתַתִּ֧י מְטַֽר־אַרְצְכֶ֛ם בְּעִתּ֖וֹ יוֹרֶ֣ה וּמַלְק֑וֹשׁ וְאָסַפְתָּ֣ דְגָנֶ֔ךָ וְתִירֹֽשְׁךָ֖ וְיִצְהָרֶֽךָ׃
וְנָתַתִּ֛י עֵ֥שֶׂב בְּשָׂדְךָ֖ לִבְהֶמְתֶּ֑ךָ וְאָכַלְתָּ֖ וְשָׂבָֽעְתָּ׃
הִשָּֽׁמְר֣וּ לָכֶ֔ם פֶּ֥ן יִפְתֶּ֖ה לְבַבְכֶ֑ם וְסַרְתֶּ֗ם וַעֲבַדְתֶּם֙ אֱלֹהִ֣ים אֲחֵרִ֔ים וְהִשְׁתַּחֲוִיתֶ֖ם לָהֶֽם׃
וְחָרָ֨ה אַף־יְהֹוָ֜ה בָּכֶ֗ם וְעָצַ֤ר אֶת־הַשָּׁמַ֙יִם֙ וְלֹֽא־יִהְיֶ֣ה מָטָ֔ר וְהָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה לֹ֥א תִתֵּ֖ן אֶת־יְבוּלָ֑הּ וַאֲבַדְתֶּ֣ם מְהֵרָ֗ה מֵעַל֙ הָאָ֣רֶץ הַטֹּבָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר יְהֹוָ֖ה נֹתֵ֥ן לָכֶֽם׃
וְשַׂמְתֶּם֙ אֶת־דְּבָרַ֣י אֵ֔לֶּה עַל־לְבַבְכֶ֖ם וְעַֽל־נַפְשְׁכֶ֑ם וּקְשַׁרְתֶּ֨ם אֹתָ֤ם לְאוֹת֙ עַל־יֶדְכֶ֔ם וְהָי֥וּ לְטוֹטָפֹ֖ת בֵּ֥ין עֵינֵיכֶֽם׃
וְלִמַּדְתֶּ֥ם אֹתָ֛ם אֶת־בְּנֵיכֶ֖ם לְדַבֵּ֣ר בָּ֑ם בְּשִׁבְתְּךָ֤ בְּבֵיתֶ֙ךָ֙ וּבְלֶכְתְּךָ֣ בַדֶּ֔רֶךְ וּֽבְשׇׁכְבְּךָ֖ וּבְקוּמֶֽךָ׃
וּכְתַבְתָּ֛ם עַל־מְזוּז֥וֹת בֵּיתֶ֖ךָ וּבִשְׁעָרֶֽיךָ׃
לְמַ֨עַן יִרְבּ֤וּ יְמֵיכֶם֙ וִימֵ֣י בְנֵיכֶ֔ם עַ֚ל הָֽאֲדָמָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֨ר נִשְׁבַּ֧ע יְהֹוָ֛ה לַאֲבֹתֵיכֶ֖ם לָתֵ֣ת לָהֶ֑ם כִּימֵ֥י הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃
Rabbi Zalman Shachter Shalomi interpretive translation follows:
How good it will be when you really listen and hear my directions which I give to you today for loving YaH who is your God, and to act godly with feeling and inspiration.
Your earthly needs will be met at the right time, appropriate to the season.
You will reap what you planted for your delight and health.
Also, your animals will have ample feed; all of you will eat and be content.
Be careful – watch out! Don’t let your cravings delude you.
Don’t become alienated. Don’t let your cravings become your gods.
Don’t debase yourself to them because the God sense within you will become distorted.
Heaven will be shut to you; grace will not descend.
Earth will not produce. Your rushing will destroy you!
And Earth will not be able to recover her good balance in which God’s gifts manifest.
May these values of Mine reside in your feelings and aspirations, marking what you produce, guiding what you perceive.
Teach them to your children so that they will be addressed by them in making their homes, how they deal with traffic, when you are depressed, when you are elated.
Mark your entrances and exits with them so you’ll be more aware.
Then you and your children will live out on earth that divine promise given to your ancestors to live heavenly days right here on this earth.
It is About Relationship Between the people and God
The first four Hebrew words are “Vehayah im shamoa tishmau”. Vehayah im – the conditional phrase, “what if”, the very fundamental principle of Judaism: making a choice, the right one.
The next two words, Shamoa Tishmau, sound very similar. Indeed, they both are forms of the Hebrew root shin, mem, ayin; shema – to hear. This duplication seems to be redundant; and yet, it begs the question: why is the meaning in repeating it twice?
Throughout the Bible, repetition of words typically connotes emphasis. But why is hearing emphasized here, in the second phrase of the Shema? The prayer starts with the word Shema, said only once: Shema Yisrael.
Maybe the repetition of the root demonstrates our partnership with God. It illustrates that in our relationship with God, we hear God and we wish to be heard as well.
The first verse of Ekev may support this assumption. We see there a repetition of the root Sh. M. R. – observe, guard, keep. The first “observe” refers to the People of Israel observing the laws. The second refers to God that observed and fulfills his commitment in the Covenant. The two demonstrate a bi-directional relationship, as may the repetition of “listen, hear” allude to.
That partnership is strengthened with ritual and with commitment. We hear with our faith, and we are heard with our actions. Rabbi Louis Finkelstein said that when he prayed, he talked to God and when he studied, God talked to him. He was hearing the words of God withing the sacred texts and was heard in his prayers.
On Sunday, the 9th of October 1994 Naḥshon Wachsman was abducted by Hamas terrorist that impersonated to Yarmulke wearing Jews. Many in the country prayed for his safety and release from captivity. People gathered at the Kotel (Wailing Wall in Jerusalem) and recited psalms, pleading to HaShem for his wellbeing. On that week’s Friday night, during an attempt to release him from captivity, he was murdered. The commanding officer of the operation, Captain Nir Poraz, fell in the battle, and seven others were injured.
Yehuda, Naḥshon’s father, in an interview 10 years later, expressed his feelings about the unanswered prayers for his son’s rescue. He repeated the concept within the eulogy that Naḥshon’s rabbi performed. Yehuda said: “We all prayed, and the Holy One blessed be He, heard our prayers. For some reason he said ‘No.’ I do not understand why, and yet, we must continue praying and pleading, because it is a spiritual need and an enormous strength.”
He understood that not having the prayers and plea fulfilled does not mean that God did not hear the prayers. Being heard is not judged on whether we receive the answers we are looking for. Being heard is only one direction of the bidirectional relationship. The second is listening to the answers, whatever they may be, and trying to understand and accept them, as difficult as they may be.
Before Making a Choice, Know the Consequences
As noted earlier, the paragraph starts with Im – If, giving us the freedom to choose one path or another.
One option is to listen and harken, observe, guard to follow. One can not follow orders, instructions, that one doesn’t know. So, a prerequisite to observance is listening to the values and rules of engagement. This is yet another way to present the teaching of Rabbi Finkelstein: listening is learning. Then the text continues to elaborate what would be the consequences of making this choice (Deuteronomy 11:14–15): “I will favor your land with rain at the proper season, in autumn and spring and you will have an ample harvest of grain and wine and oil. I will provide grass in your fields for you livestock, so you can eat and be satiated.”
The other option also starts with a condition, lest (ibid, ibid, 16): “Beware, if your heart will be tempted to move away and to worship other gods.” If that will be your choice, than God’s wrath will be directed against you (ibid, ibid, 17): “God will close the heavens and hold back the rain; the earth will not yield its produce. You will soon perish from the good land that HaShem is assigning to you.”
Choice, as it is presented in the Shema, is the integral connection between human beings and the divine. We are not simply dealt cards and told to play them, rather, we choose many of our cards. It is how we choose to play them that make all the difference.
The Maimonides teaches in his code (The Laws of Repentance, 5:1–3):
Free will is granted to every person. If a person desires to follow the path of good and be righteous, he/she is free to do so. And if one desires to follow a path of evil and wickedness, likewise one is free to choose that path. This constitutes a fundamental principle and pillar of the Torah and its precepts. The Creator does not force His will on any person, or preordain one to do good or evil. Rather, the choice is theirs. Man can, on one’s own initiative, with one’s knowledge and thought, to know and discern between good and evil, and do what Man desires. There is no one who can prevent him from doing good or bad.
Divine messages will not necessarily be shouted at us every moment of every day. But, if we listen (=learn), sometimes we can hear the whispers and then make our choices. The directive of the Shema is to state loud and clear just what God is asking of us; to be God’s partner. And the choice is ours.