August 21, 2008
Parshat Ekev (Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25)
This week's Torah portion describes the bountiful blessings promised to our people by God, if (ekev) we obey the laws of Torah.
People often struggle with the Deuteronomic perspective on loyalty to mitzvot and its consequences. Obviously, subverters of Torah can and do prosper, at least temporarily. By the same token, the righteous suffer, and Ekev itself testifies that God tests, even afflicts, His beloveds (8:16). It's a vast oversimplification to read the Torah text as a rigid statement of reward and punishment. Ekev is championing the rewards of Torah, but its theology is nuanced.
According to Ekev, even blessings present a certain danger. When "your silver and gold have increased and everything you own prospers" (8:13), you may forget God and disregard your Source. Don't become haughty and say, "My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me" (8:17). Nor dare you say to yourself, "I am blessed because of my righteousness" (9:4). Instead, "remember that God is the One who gives you power to be prosperous and victorious, in fulfillment of the covenant made with your ancestors" (8:18).
People tend to believe that they have earned their own good fortune. Ekev insists that it is neither our prowess nor our goodness that prospers us. It is God's power and grace. Prosperity is the major theme and blessing in this Torah portion. And that is precisely why this portion urges us to guard against both arrogance and self-righteousness in the face of abundance.
We who live in Los Angeles -- the City of Angels and, too often, of excess -- ought to know something about the dangers of prosperity. We can testify that radical blessings are more difficult to handle than one might expect. Abundance can -- and does -- inspire gratitude and tzedakah. The more people have, the more they can use their blessings for positive and spiritual ends. But it's also true that abundance is used to justify self-importance, jadedness and materialism. The more people have, the more they can squander their blessings on negative and corrupting influences. This perspective is reflected in one reading of the priestly blessing: "May God bless you and protect you" (Numbers 6:24) has been interpreted to mean, "May God bless you -- and also protect you from your blessings."
When you talk to people who have achieved radical blessings, very often they speak warmly about the days when they struggled. There was a purity, a simplicity, a potential before the blessing that cannot be completely owned or recaptured once it arrives. This attitude may stem partly from misplaced nostalgia; the "good old days" weren't always as good as we remember. But there is at least a germ of truth in the nostalgia.
The days when you are hungry (physically or spiritually) are often more rewarding, more full of life, somehow, than the days when you can "eat without stint." The rabbis of the Talmud debate why "affliction of the soul" on Yom Kippur should necessarily mean fasting (Yoma 74b). Sometimes, eating is an affliction. Manna, a food, is called an affliction in Ekev (8:16).
The Torah portion and this section of Talmud hold similar views of human nature. Left to our own devices, we will take our blessings for granted. We may convince ourselves that we have earned them, and we will surely go looking for the proverbial "more" -- which is never enough.
A key solution suggested in both Ekev and Yoma is what I would dub "blessing management." We need to consciously notice and respond to our blessings. We may occasionally need to renounce or forgo them (as in fasting on Yom Kippur) to regain appreciation. We have to be vigilant against arrogance, self-righteousness, abuse of power and all the other potential pitfalls of prosperity. Above all, we must remember and connect with the Source from which all blessings come.
These strategies can sound like clichés, until you think of your own blessings and really wake up to how much you have. Then a deep gratitude comes ... and then, with the realization of all the grace bestowed on you, humility. Then, perhaps, embarrassment arises over foolish pride of "ownership" in your blessings. And, sometimes, we are able to determine a best next step. What is each blessing calling us to do, to give, to share? Our blessings are talking to us. Ekev tishmeun, if only we would listen.