Shabbat Eikev 5776 - 2016

Post date: Aug 26, 2016 12:21:37 AM

26 August 2016

Parshat Eikev

This week’s parsha – Eikev – is filled with the famous, and the infamous. As we are still in the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy), we are hearing many stories, mitzvot, and promises reiterated from earlier in the Torah. However, this week’s parsha also holds some unique p’sukim (verses) of its own, including the second paragraph of the Shema – found in chapter 11.

Initially, we have many statements of the blessings that shall come about if we, the Israelites, follow God’s mitzvot. Along with this are reminders of God’s greatness in bringing us out of Egypt, sustaining us with manna in the desert, and bringing us to the bountiful promised land of Zion. Alongside these promises of blessing are warnings of death and destruction should we not heed the word of God and follow God’s laws.

One particular place in this week’s parsha – chapter 9, verses 6-17 – have a notable phrase, harkening back to the book of Shemot (Exodus). Passuk 6 reads, “Know therefore that it is not for your righteousness that the LORD your God gives you this good land to possess it; for you are a stiff-necked people.” This phrase – am k’shei oref – a stiff-necked people – appears in only one other part of the Torah, immediately after the people of Israel have made the golden calf. Of all the shameful events in the Israelites’ past, God and Moses choose this most terrible act to remind the Israelites of now, in this moment before they enter Zion.

It is certainly an interesting phrase – am k’shei oref – a stiff-necked people, particularly because it appears only in Shemot after the golden calf, and here, in Devarim. The first word – k’shei – comes from the root kuf shin hey. In other contexts, this root can mean harsh, severe, hard, or fierce. The second word – oref – comes from the root ayin reish fei. This often refers to the back of one’s neck, but can also mean to break one’s neck. Historically, it describes how an ox might pull a plow. If the ox veered from the furrow, the farmer used a long stick to poke its neck toward the right direction. An ox that did not respond to this prodding was said to have a hard neck.

Here in Devarim, and previously in Shemot, the Israelites are referred to as harsh, severe people whose neck is hardened, or broken. Why might God choose to describe the Israelites in this way? The first thought that comes to my mind is that we Israelites (or, descendants of Israelites) can be rather stubborn. At least, I have been told as much – on more than one occasion. God certainly sees this quality as negative, and perhaps it may be – if you are trying to shepherd a people out of slavery and bring them into a new land, which they must conquer and then possess. In our modern world, though, is being stubborn a bad thing?

In my professional life, I am often told that it is important to be flexible – to go with the flow, think on your feet, and roll with the punches. The nature and sports metaphors aside, coming into situations with an ability to adapt and change as needed is clearly important and beneficial. When young people cannot do this – when they act rigidly, and cannot be swayed otherwise – we give them all sorts of labels, special help, and speak quietly about how this will surely not continue into adulthood.

But then I think about adults who might be labeled as inflexible. People who were unwilling to compromise their values and had no thought of acquiescing to the demands of others, when those demands conflicted with their will or belief. Certainly these are not people I would want to spend too much time with, but one cannot deny that they – at times – make immeasurable contributions to our society. Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr., Itzchak Rabin, Mahatma Gandhi. These great leaders were uncompromising in their beliefs, and marched steadily forward, despite huge external opposition to their actions and often challenged even by their own internal self doubt.

So, when is it important to be stubborn – to be an am k’shei oref – a stiff-necked people – and when should we be flexible? There is no rule of thumb, no aphorism to keep in the back of our minds. There are times – I’m sure each of us can think of some – when we regret our compromises, when we feel we should have held more strongly to our convictions. These situations are almost all moral or ethical in nature.

But that certainly cannot be the litmus test, for conversely, we can be perfectly sincere in and true to our convictions, and perfectly wrong in the outcomes they produce.

Moreover, morals, ethics, and values change over time – both on an individual and societal level. It was just a few Torah chapters ago when we read that the daughters of Zelophehad petitioned Moses successfully to change the rules of inheritance. Think of our own social, legal, and political struggles against racial segregation and for equal rights in the United States, knowing that in many countries, slavery is still practiced in all but name and in far more countries, women are treated as little more than chattel and homosexuality carries a death sentence. If we only hold fast to our convictions in any moral dilemma, we may still find ourselves later regretting our choices.

Choosing well, then, might seem to be a daunting and superhuman task, too much to expect from each of us and too high a standard to live up to individually.

It is.

But rather than setting us up with impossible expectations, our Torah gives us a far more reasonable standard for doing the right thing, something well within our reach. There is one caveat, however, which is that we cooperate.

It is the subtle but unmistakable message of the second paragraph of the Shema (Devarim 11:13-21). This paragraph, which we recite twice each day, tells us that if we do right by God, then God will do right by us, but its grammatical form is the second person plural. It addresses us as a society, not as individuals. If we, as a society, do good, then God will favor us, as a society.

The job is not an insurmountable task of individual human perfection. It is the much more attainable task of justice as a group, which takes into account mistakes along the way and individual lapses in judgment. And how can we achieve justice as a group, except by listening to one another? Indeed, actively listening to one another may itself be sufficient to ensure our path toward a just society.

We have a reprieve from an expectation of saintliness, but even our group decisions, must at some point, rest on individual decisions. Both stubbornness and flexibility can prove to be both great strengths or great flaws. What, then, is one to do?

In the parsha, we end with this, “You shall diligently keep all these commandments which I command you, to do it, to love the LORD your God, to walk in all God’s ways, and to cleave unto God” (Devarim 11:22). The word at the end of the passuk – to cleave onto – in Hebrew is l’dav’kah-vo. This root – dalet vet kuf – in modern Hebrew means glue. Not necessarily any deep meaning – the word is used to refer to the Elmer’s white glue that a child might use at school. This is how I think of balancing flexibility and stubbornness. To be like Elmer’s glue – you must be able to hold on to something when need be, but if the glue should get into the wrong places, it is easily rubbed off. We must have the courage to hold fast to our beliefs, but also the flexibility to see when those beliefs may be harmful to ourselves, our loved ones, our communities, or our planet.

Elmer’s glue is nothing like the Crazy Glue or Gorilla Glue that require a trip to the emergency room if applied to the wrong place – Elmer’s glue is strong, yet much more flexible. If we strive for this balance of strength and flexibility, we continue to move from being a stiff-necked people to being a people of integrity and conscience. And if we continue to listen to one another, we will ensure that the planet which our as yet unborn generations inherit will continue to bend toward justice.

Shabbat shalom,

Yvonne Asher, Samuel Asher