Commentary for Eikev

9 Sep

The major theme of this week’s parshah is reward and punishment, especially as pertains to the inheritance of the Promised Land.  Moses reminds the Israelites that they are inheriting this land not on their own merits, but on the merits of their forefathers to whom God promised it, and that the nations they will be dispossessing are not being dispossessed for the Israelites’ sake, but rather because of their own wicked deeds.  The general warning that Moses gives the Israelites is to never forget that God is the true source of any success they have, be it in battle or in business or in reaping a bountiful harvest, because if they ever forget this, God will punish them by rescinding these blessings.  To help us to never forget this, we say a berachah before we eat, praising God as the ultimate source of the food we are about to eat.

This week’s parshah also contains the commandment to say Birkat Hamazon (grace after meals), although such a practice seems to be redundant if we are already saying berachot before we eat.  The commandment to say Birkat Hamazon differs from the idea of saying berachot before eating in one rather strange way.  We are commanded that “you shall eat and you shall be satisfied, and you shall bless the Lord your God (Deut. 8:10).”  If the purpose of reciting Birkat Hamazon is to thank God for our food, why should it matter if we are satisfied with how much we have eaten or not?

According to Rabbi Shlomo of Karlin, the phrase “you shall be satisfied” is meant to teach the following lesson: “when one eats in a spirit of gratitude, whether there is much food on the table or little, the meal is satisfying (Etz Hayim p. 1041).”  In other words, if we go into each meal with the mindset that having food should not be an expectation, we will realize how lucky we are to have any at all.  This advice will certainly help one remain in the mindset of appreciation of God that Moses warns the Israelites that they must remain in if they hope to prosper in the Promised Land.

The penultimate line of Birkat Hamazon is Psalms 37:25, which reads “I have been young and I have grown old, and never have I seen a righteous man forsaken, or his children begging for bread.”   The final line then reads “God will give strength to His nation, God will bless His nation with peace.”  These two statements of faith, when meshed together, do a fine job of encapsulating the message of our parshah, as summarized in its final aliyah (Deut. 11:22-25), which promises that “For if you will observe this entire commandment that I command you, to perform it, to love the Lord your God, to walk in His ways, and to cleave to Him;” then God will protect us from all manner of threats and we shall live peacefully in the land that God has given us.

Sifrei takes issue with the phrase “to walk in His ways” on the grounds that it is redundant.  Surely following God’s commandments would cover metaphorically walking in God’s ways, wouldn’t it?  Sifrei interprets this phrase as a specific commandment to emulate God’s ways via acts of loving kindness, even if they aren’t specific commandments in the Torah (such as visiting the sick or comforting mourners).

Along these lines, in his commentary in the (Ashkenazi) Koren Sacks siddur, Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks passes down the following brilliant insight from an unknown author regarding the penultimate verse of Birkat Hamazon.  It suggests that the word ra’iti (“I have seen”) instead be understood in the same sense that Ester uses it in Ester 8:6: “For how can I watch the evil that shall come unto my people and how can I watch the destruction of my kindred.”  In this verse, the word ra’iti is used to mean “stand as a passive witness to,” and thus the verse in Psalms would better be translated as “I have been young and I have grown old, and yet never have I watched a righteous man forsaken, or his children begging for bread.”

It is important to note that at that point in the Ester story, Ester and Mordechai are already safe.  Achashverosh has made it clear that he has no problem with Ester’s Judaism, and Haman has been put to death, with Mordechai appointed chief minister in his place.  The only ones in danger at this point are other the Jews living under Achashverosh’s rule, who have not yet been protected from the decree that they are to be obliterated come the thirteenth of Adar.  Ester’s questions in 8:6 are not an internal wallowing of “woe is me!  But alas, I can’t do anything and will have to sit here and watch,” but rather rhetorical punctuation on her request to Achashverosh in the previous verse to issue a decree allowing the Jews to defend themselves.  Ester, having experienced and been spared from the same danger her people are facing, now does what she can to help save them as well.

Rabbi Shlomo of Karlin’s lesson is intended to help put us in the same frame of mind as Ester.  Those who sit down to their meal realizing that they should not always expect to have food will be more mindful of the plight of those who are not fortunate enough to have any.  When they come across a beggar in the street, they do as Sifrei says and walk in God’s ways by providing food for the needy, just as God has provided food for them, which Rabbi Sacks notes creates a symmetry between the beginning of Birkat Hamazon, where we thank God for providing us with food, and the end, where we commit ourselves to emulating God by feeding others.  That same symmetry can be found between Birkat Hamazon and this week’s parshah, which starts with a promise of the food that God will provide for us (if we observe God’s commandments) and closes with charging us to emulate God by providing care for others, promising us that if we do, God will do as we hope for God to do at the end of Birkat Hamazon: “God will give strength to His nation, God will bless His nation with peace.”

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