Ekev: justice and mercy, individual and society, unity and interdependence from the Shema to the Days of Awe

Ask most Jews to explain the Shema and chances are they will think only of the first paragraph. They will speak of the Affirmation of the unity of God, the centrality of that belief to Judaism. Many Jewish commentators wax lyrical about the Shema as confession of faith through the ages. There are stories of those who die “al Kiddush HaShem”, prolonging the words of the Shema until they expire, leaving this world with the proclamation of their belief in the one God. Others speak of  the duty to love God that is spoken of in the prayer, the requirement to keep Gods commandments and to teach our children to do so. They remind us of the awareness of God that is to be present at all times and in everything we do – whatever we look towards, whatever our hands are busy with.

So central to Jewish theology is this prayer, that the early leaders of the Reform Movement made a deliberate policy to highlight it during the services, and hence many progressive congregations would stand whilst the first paragraph is being recited, and some even open the ark so as to further underline the point.

But the Shema itself is actually comprised of three paragraphs, and in our zeal to highlight the first we have cast the other two into shadow. We are aided and abetted in this by our own siddur which offers other passages for reading in silence as well as the full text of the shema.

It is not surprising that the reformers were less keen to proclaim the sentiments of the second paragraph, for whilst the first has an underlying principle of Loving God, this one had as its essence the principle of Fearing God.

Here we have the God of Righteous Retribution. The powerful God of Justice whose requirement and commandments must be fulfilled on pain of death. No room for negotiation here, only unswerving dedication and acceptance of the mitzvot will do. This time God is perceived as rewarding the good and punishing the wicked. There is no middle way and there is no way out. If you truly listen go God, love and obey completely, the rains will come at the right time and the land will be fertile and productive.

If however your heart strays to other gods, then there will be no rain, the land will not produce and disaster will come

The equation is simple and horribly clear. Obeying God means remaining in the land which is lush and fertile; disobeying means the likelihood of a horrible death from famine.  Jeremiah, describing one such drought wrote: “Judah is in mourning, her settlements languish. Men are bowed to the ground and the outcry of Jerusalem rises. Their nobles sent their servants for water; they came to the cisterns they found no water. They returned their vessels empty. They are shamed and humiliated, they cover their heads. Because of the ground there is dismay, for there has been no rain on the earth. The ploughmen are shamed they cover their heads. Even the hind in the field forsakes her new-born fawn because there is no grass. And the wild asses stand on the bare heights, snuffling the air like jackals. Their eyes pine because there is no herbage”( Jer 14:1-6)

Rain in its due season, life giving water, is a gift from God. God may choose to withhold it and so cause wholesale death as punishment. This is the theology of the fundamentalist  who blames the difficulties we experience as punishment for someone’s (usually someone else’s) sin . It is a perception of God that is both childlike and horrific, a god without mercy who dispenses reward and punishment with machine like efficiency and no extenuating circumstances to be taken into account.

Small wonder the Reform Movement had no desire to weight this paragraph with the same glory as its predecessor. Small wonder the MRJ siddur took to printing it out only once, and in other places laconically writes “during the silence the second and third paragraphs of the Shema may be read, or the following” and then gives us uplifting selections from Isaiah, Proverbs or the Holiness Code in Leviticus.

Traditionally the three paragraphs are printed in full whenever the Shema is to be read, and the rabbis of old had other way of dealing with this rather frightening aspect of the almighty. Prayers for rain in their due season are recited in services, the principle prayer being recited during Musaf on the last day of Sukkot and from then until Pesach the sentence “mashiv ha ruach umoreed ha geshem” is inserted into the Amidah (who causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall). After Pesach another prayer for dew is recited and there are several other petitionary prayers recited at the appropriate times of the year.

The prayers for rain are amongst the earliest of all the liturgical texts and are clearly a response to the fear of divine threat that would withhold rain as punishment. If these prayers do not work, then the Mishnah lays down another response – that of fasting. The structures become greater the longer the period without rain, from people of merit fasting during daylight hours for three days to eventually the whole community fasting a total of thirteen days, with no washing, little business transacted and so on. The bible may describe certain punishment, but the rabbis modified it to take account of repentance.

Other responses take account of the fact that we do not often see the righteous rewarded nor the wicked punished in everyday life, though the development of the idea of an afterlife is later than the text here in Deuteronomy but once it appears in our philosophy, it means that punishment need not be tied into the agricultural year.

The book of Job was written as a response to the convention wisdom that all who are afflicted in life have in some way deserved it. Maimonides coped with this threat of divine retribution by writing that people should first serve God for a reward in order to learn to serve God without any motive – he took the view here (as with the sacrificial system) that ideal worship has to be learned and will not come without a process of weaning away from other forms. Hence this was a necessary stage in the history of the development of the relationship of the Jewish with God.

A more modern attempt to cope with this difficult second paragraph is to look at it in context with the first. In the first paragraph the underlying principle is love and the wording is in the singular – you will love God and do God’s commandments.  In the second paragraph the underlying principle is that of fear, and through the fear will come the acceptance of the yoke of the commandments – most of which cannot be done without other people.

The wording is in the plural precisely for that reason. One can fulfil the first paragraph alone, but for the second paragraph to be valid, other people are vital. The shema moves from the relationship of the individual with God to relationships within society. For these relationships to work there must be rules and sanctions, boundaries must be set in place for the security of all concerned. Love alone will not enable a society to function smoothly – courts of laws are needed to.

We are moving towards a time of the year when the image of God as Judge is becoming stronger. Soon we shall be entering the moth of Elul with its lead up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Nachmanides wrote that Rosh Hashanah is a day of judgement with mercy and Yom Kippur is a day of mercy with judgement. Either way both mercy and judgement are part of the unity of God, interdependent and of equal importance just as we see in the full shema.

There is a Midrash that before God made our world God first made and destroyed other worlds. Some were made only with justice but no one could survive. Some God made only with mercy and love but the inhabitants were anarchic and constantly destroyed each other. Finally God made a world with a blend of the two, an imperfect but pragmatic world that worked. And that was when God knew that it was good.

Ekev: blessing God after meals for the good land God has given us. Or “don’t forget where your food comes from”

We learn in sidra Ekev of the importance of giving thanks to God after a meal – “V’achalta v’savata u’vayrachta et Adonai Elohecha al Ha’aretz ha’tovah asher natan lach. When you have eaten and are satisfied, bless the Eternal your God for the good land which God has given you.” (Deut 8:7-10)
The Birkat Hamazon has a number of blessings according to the Talmud (Berachot 48b)–
Birkat Hazan – to praise God who sustains the world;
Birkat Ha’aretz, to thank God for everything, focusing on the Land of Israel;
Boneh Yerushalayim – the petition to protect and rebuild Jerusalem,
And finally HaTov ve’haMeitiv, general praise and thanks for God.
These, and the zimun, the general invitation when three or more eat together, are taken from the verse like this:
When you have eaten your fill, you shall bless – Birkat haZimun;
The Eternal your God – Birkat Hazan;
For the…land – Birkat Ha’aretz;
…the good (land)… – Boneh Yerushalayim;
That God has given you – HaTov ve’haMeitiv.
While there is some dispute about the zimun and the final tov ve’haMeitiv, there is general agreement that to fulfil the obligation we must make the three blessings, of God, and of the land, and of Jerusalem, and that these are biblical commandments. (Jerusalem Talmud: Berachot)
Yet earlier on that same page in the Gemara textchallot-jan-2012.jpg, we are told that Moses composed the Birkat hazan , that when the Manna fell, Joshua composed Birkat Ha’aretz when the people entered the Land of Israel, David and Solomon composed Boneh Yerushalayim at different stages of the building of the city, and the Rabbis at Yavneh composed HaTov ve’haMeitiv in response to the burial of the martyrs of Beitar!

Wherever they do come from the Birkat Hamazon, the blessings recited after food, is a different animal than most other blessings we do, which tend to be one-liners and which are focussed on the particular action involved and which, crucially, we do BEFORE the act. (The only one we do afterwards apart from Birkat Hamazon is the blessing after lighting the Shabbat candles, and then only so as not to say a blessing in vain, as we may bless and then not have time before Shabbat comes in to kindle the flame). Yet here in relation to food we bless BEFORE, with haMotzi, and then we go in in Birkat Hamazon to ask for blessing for the land, for Jerusalem, for God as protector as well as simply thank God for the food.
So why the extra Berachot, and why the need to extend the sense of our being blessed not only to the meal we have enjoyed but to the land of Israel, to Jerusalem, to our relationship with God? Nachmanides suggests that the long Birkat Hamazon is needed as an antidote to pride and arrogance. In the context of the biblical passage from where it comes, Moses warns the people against forgetting who is behind our food, who gives us our wealth – God. Moses warns that we must not just take our food from the land as if it is a right, but to remember the relationship we have with the land, that it is itself a symbol of our relationship of obligation to God.

Ekev: walking on the heels of God

Ekev- The name of the sidra, is a conundrum. The root meaning of the word is the curve of the heel, and of course the resonance of the word is always Jacob – Ya’akov, so called because he was holding onto the heel of his twin brother Esau at birth.

Usually we translate the word here as ‘because’ or ‘if’.’ so we would simply read the verse that begins this sidra (Deuteronomy 7:12) as And it shall come to pass, because / if you listen to these ordinances, and keep, and do them, the Eternal your God shall keep with you the covenant and the mercy which God swore to your ancestors”, but we could also read it as “following on the heel of listening to these ordinances, your keeping and doing them means the Eternal your God shall keep….”  in other words there is an almost physical and intimate causal relationship, we can see the footprints of where we have walked with God.  There is a clear record of where we have wandered.

This way of reading the verse always makes me think of the footsteps we are said to have left on the surface of the moon, a continuing reminder of our existence and our desire to go further, learn more, dominate our environment. They stay there as a symbol both of our extraordinary ability and our extraordinary carelessness.

The famous medieval commentator Rashi makes an interesting point in his understanding of the word and its context. Unusually for such a grammarian he makes a sermonic point – while also seeing the word ‘ekev’ as connected to the heel of a foot he does not assume it to be about following on the heels of the action, but reads it as “if you will keep the statutes that you view as unimportant, the ones you would ordinarily walk over as if they are not there, then the Eternal your God will keep the covenant …”  

There is an ongoing theme in Torah: God commands us to behave in a whole lot of ways that we don’t find easy to do, caring for the poor, limiting our own greed and desires, remembering our fragility and mortality and the limits to our own ability, working together to create a just and compassionate community. We know ourselves to be commanded and we want to be like this, but we are always straying, always forgetting what is actually important and of lasting worth to give value to that which is transient and unimportant. And regularly our behaviour causes us to be estranged from God, symbolised here in the fact that the rain will no longer be a gift from heaven to the earth, that we will find ourselves on a dried up and unforgiving land, we will be forcibly reminded about what is truly meaningful.  

Rashi suggests that what is really important here is what seems at first glance to be unimportant, that it is all the small mitzvot that we must keep, the ordinary, the mundane, the unglamorous everyday acts of valuing others that we often manage to ignore. And I must say I like the idea that the saving of the world is dependent on the many small acts of kindness that we can do in a day if we choose to do so. But I am also aware of this word “Ekev” and of its associate “Yaakov “ and I remember that we are the particular children of Jacob/Ya’akov and of his better, straightened out self, Israel.

The footsteps we leave in our world as a result of the things we do and the places we venture remain for a long time, and their consequences may impact for generations. We are the Children of Jacob, whose limping gait after meeting the Angel on his way back home after living with Laban, left distinctive footprints;  And we try to be the children of Israel, straightened out at the Ford of Jabok through his wrestling with the Angel God, and whose walk was never the same.

We should be aware of where we walk, and with whom we are walking. We need to observe what we trample unthinkingly underfoot, notice the distinctive mark that our living here makes on the world. If we lived with such an awareness of the small and apparently unimportant acts that would change our world, and if we thought about the footprints we leave behind us, maybe we would be more thoughtful about how we walk through our world.