Parashat Eikev 5777

Rabbi Danny Rich, 11 August 2017

Parashat Eikev finds Moses in full flow as he recalls the recent history of the Children of Israel including the Golden Calf (10:1-11), a contrast between Canaan and Egypt (11:10-12) and the lessons of the wilderness (8:1-18). He reminds them of their new opportunities and responsibilities in the Promised Land. Whilst he opens with the blessings of obedience (7:12-16), he also sounds a warning that those who forget God will be destroyed (8:19-20) and that a productive Land of Israel is contingent on good behaviour (11:13-21 – the second paragraph of the Shema). The parasha concludes with a motivational thought that the keeping of religious obligations will lead to increased borders.

The largest individual section and chapter (9:1-29) is a warning against self-righteousness in which Moses makes two major points. The first concerns the election of Israel whereby Moses observes that Israel is not superior by size or merit. Indeed he suggest the very opposite! The Children of Israel were small in number and ‘stiff necked’ of temperament and it was a simple historical fact that they were chosen to be an instrument of the Divine will – the guardians of the Torah, a moral exemplar.

‘Keseh oref’ (stiff-necked) is often understood negatively. Sforno (1475-1550: Italy) understood stiff necked to mean ‘unable to accept criticism and to change’, and Abravanel (1437-1508: Portugal, then Venice) observed that ‘A stiff-necked person cannot look behind and see where actions have led’. Elsewhere the resilience of the Jewish people is considered a virtue.

Moses further opines that (even) victory (in the Conquest of the Promised Land) is no proof of virtue.

Bringing these points together Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888: Germany) writes:

…there is one factor that stands out. Just now the people were told that they would be able to conquer the Promised Land even though they were not deserving of this on their own merit, but they would be unable to retain possession of the Land if they would not be deserving of this on their moral merit. This review shows them clearly that they cannot rest on the laurels in moral complacency and feel secure in the promise given to their forefathers. The promise to the patriarchs – that a great nation would arise from their descendants through which ‘all families of the earth will be blessed’ – is destined to be fulfilled even if the whole generation of this people goes to ruin and there remains only one person who is faithful to his duty and able to carry on the covenant of the forefathers.

No community and no individual, no matter how important their mission is for God’s work on earth, may be so conceited as to imagine that they are indispensable to God’s work… In advancing towards its goals, God’s providence passes over the whole generations and individual members of the nation, who are, after all, transient, no matter how great they may be. Even Aaron was summoned to take leave of his time, to be buried on the summit of the mountain, whereas the people, encamped in the valley, proceeded on its journey to further goals. And when Moses mentioned the death of his brother {Aaron} perhaps he thought also of himself and of his own imminent death. His death warns every future man (sic) of Israel: Do not forget that even Moses was not indispensable to the continued leadership of God’s purposes. Moses, too, died on the summit of a mountain, whereas the people proceeded on its way to the future.

This is the conundrum of responsible human existence. On the one hand each of us is required to take responsibility, to play our part and yet no one of us is so important that the project will collapse without us. It requires leaders of skill and balance to know when to ‘lead from the front’ but equally to recognise when to ‘withdraw and follow another’.

Leadership skills and training is all the rage today and highly paid consultants will charge you for the benefit of their wisdom and experience.

Perhaps a rabbi or another schooled in Torah may have just as useful insights!
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