Parashat Ekev

Motivated by Love of God

Beyond reward and punishment.

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This portion continues the theme that has already been established and repeated. If you do as God tells you to do, then God will reward you. But that is only half of the story: if you don't do what God tells you to do, God will punish you severely. Most commentators translate ekev, the name of this portion, as "because," an indicator as to why one should follow the Divine instructions contained here and elsewhere in the Torah. This serves as a thematic opening of sorts for the entire portion--and a guidepost for our own journey.

The Title Revisited

But ekev can also mean "heel." The commentator, Jacob ben Asher suggests that the heel is an indicator of humility, since it always follows the toes and the rest of the foot. Thus, the Torah reading would begin "If you are humble and follow God's commands, then...". Others suggest that the heel also provides a foundation for the entire body on which to stand.

To me, the contents of the portion lean more to "a crushing heel" for a title, the result should the Israelites not follow the directions that are set out for them. As much as the rabbis try to mitigate the intensity of the portion with their various explanations of the title, it does not appear to be the loving portion we would prefer. Listen to what the Torah instructs the Israelites to do to its neighbors, for example:

"You shall destroy all the peoples that the Lord your God delivers to you, showing them no pity..." (Deuteronomy 7:16).

"You shall consign the images of their gods to the fire..." (Deuteronomy 7:25).

The Israelites seem to be given no choice. This is the way they must behave if they are to inherit their future and the land:

"Take care lest you forget the Lord your God and fail to keep the commandments, the rules, and the laws, which I enjoin upon you today" (Deuteronomy 8:11).

Another Interpretation

But I am not satisfied that this is the entire meaning of the portion, especially since the portion also teaches pride to the ancient Israelites--even if it is cast in what is initially the terms of reward and punishment. There seems to be another way to interpret the text and its direction.

With a foundation already established, chapter nine begins "Hear O Israel" (9:1), the same phrase that introduces the sacred mantra of the Jewish people, known in its liturgy as the "Shema" for the introductory word "hear" or "listen." The text tells us in chapter 11, "Love, therefore, the Lord your God, and always keep God's charge, God's laws, God's rules, and God's commandments” (Deuteronomy 11:1).

This seems to be the directive, irrespective of the consequences. But how do you command love? And how can the Torah even ask for love in this portion given what immediately precedes it? That seems to be exactly the point. After reading the conditions of the text, which will be the only approach that will persuade most people--the fear of punishment and the incentive of reward--the Torah feels compelled to command the love of God. And if Martin Buber, the 20th century theologian is right, then we are to model in all that we do the relationship that we are being asked to establish with the Divine. Our relationship with others is to be a reflection of our relationship with God--irrespective of concern over reward and punishment.

"If, then, you faithfully keep all this Instruction that I command you, loving the Lord your God, walking in all of God's ways, and holding fast to God, the Lord will dislodge before you all these nations: you will dispossess nations greater and more numerous than you. Every spot on which your foot treads shall be yours; your territory shall extend from the wilderness to the Lebanon and from the River--the Euphrates--to the Western Sea. No one will stand up to you: the Lord your God will put the dread and the fear of you over the whole land in which you set foot, as God promised you" (Deuteronomy 11:22-25).

While this chapter contains the same theme of positive rewards that we have seen elsewhere, it is not for its own sake. It is out of a love of God.

Like a well-formed composition, the ending of the portion recapitulates its beginning. If the Israelites observe all of God's commandments, and are motivated by a love of God, if we follow in the Divine footsteps and cling to God, then we can prevail against nations mightier than us. We will be rewarded with a successful conquest of the land.

But the main thing that drives us is not fear--it is the love of God. And consequently the love of people--all people--especially those who have joined us from other nations and with other backgrounds.

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Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky

Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky is executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute and the author of numerous books about Jewish spirituality.