Ekev--Imbuing Places With Meaning

This sheet on Deuteronomy 7 was written by Beth Kissileff for 929 and can also be found here

“Put them in the right environment,” was the first thing I could think of when asked for parenting advice by a father of kids much younger than my own. In this week’s portion, Ekev, Moses too alludes to the necessity of this. This land, he tells the Israelites, “is a land which the Lord your God seeks after it, always the Lord your God keeps his eye upon, from the year’s beginning to the year’s end” (Deut. 11:12).

The very characteristics of this land, the need to pray to God for rain and be dependent upon God’s mercy rather than the constantly flowing streams of the gushing Nile in Egypt, aid in ensuring the obedience of the Israelites, part of the ways that God is educating them continuously.

We don’t know how these lessons will take effect. After all the people have already misbehaved in myriad ways. Moses reminds them in his review of the past of their "provoking God to anger in the wilderness” (Deut. 9: 7), from the Golden Calf (Deut. 9:16) to the provocations at Taverah (first in Numbers 11:1-3 and reminder in Deut. 9:22), Massa (Exodus 17:1-7 and Deut. 9:22) and Kivrot-hata’avah (Num. 11:4-34 and Deut. 9:22).

In fact, one of the understandings in the Talmud of the verse “And now, Israel what does the Lord your God request of you? Only to fear the Lord your God, to walk only in his paths, to love Him and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and soul” (Deut. 10:12) is that “all is in the hands of heaven except fear of heaven” (Brachot 33b). I believe this is expressing that even when things are foreseen, it is still our choice how we will behave in response; in other words, humans are endowed with free will. In a paradox, despite so many aspects of life being beyond our control, what is within our abilities is whether to behave with fear of heaven or not.

None of us know the future or the outcome; in fact, this portion opens with a conditional statement, “If you do obey these rules and observe them carefully the Lord your God will observe for you the covenant and the kindness that he swore on oath with your ancestors” (Deut 7:12). However, Moses does know something. He knows where his words will end up. When Moses is reviewing events of the past and discussing how he went to fetch the commandments that God wrote “all the words that God had spoken to you” (Deut 9: 10), the Talmud says that Moses saw all the inferences that would come of his words, even to the reading of the book of Esther (Megillah 19b).

Words too can imbue physical places with meaning. Let us hope that the land of Israel can continue to be an environment conducive to seeking God and enabling God to seek us, a place we allow God to continue our education, not a place whose values do not reflect the totality of the Jewish tradition.

Beth Kissileff is the editor of the anthology Reading Genesis (Bloomsbury/ T and T Clark, 2016) , a journalist and teacher.

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