Rabbi Janet Burden – 3 August 2018
The Hebrew root of the word which gives this portion its name is ayin/kuf/vet. It is the same root which yields the name Ya’akov (Jacob), meaning ‘heel’. The patriarch was thus named because he was born holding the heel of his twin, but his name fits in the metaphorical sense, too. The play on words works well in English: Jacob consistently behaves opportunistically, like a real heel, in old fashioned parlance.
In our current passage from Deuteronomy, this root’s meaning is stretched in another direction, in this form meaning ‘that which follows on’, or more colloquially, ‘consequence.’ A more literal, if somewhat cumbersome, translation of the first verse would be:
The consequence that will follow if you obey these rules and observe them carefully, is that the Eternal One will keep faithfully with you the Covenant made with your ancestors…
The Deuteronomist is big on consequences: ‘If this, then that’ is a major trope that runs not only through this book of the Torah, but also through the next six books of the Hebrew Bible, from Joshua to II Kings. Failing to ‘toe the line’ (another foot metaphor!) is consistently shown to have dire consequences. No wonder our ancestors created so many ritual objects to remind us of the commanding God: kippot (a post-Biblical addition), tallitot, and, as specified at the end of the portion Eikev, tefillin and mezzuzot.
This plethora of concrete symbols has inspired one of my bar mitzvah students to offer as his D’var Torah an overview of their history and an analysis of their meanings. Was the Star of David the device on David’s shield? We may have no evidence of that, but the idea makes sense. And why was the Magen David, and not the menorah, placed on the Israeli flag? Perhaps because it was first under David’s rule that we held sovereignty in the land which he had brought together into a single kingdom. Why does the flag bear stripes that echo those of the traditional tallit? Perhaps it was meant to remind us of how we should behave in the land we now control. My student and I came up with so many questions to which we have only just begun to formulate the answers.
At our last meeting, I reminded my student that not all ‘symbols’ of Jewish life take concrete form. Does wearing a Magen David make you a good Jew? In some ways, perhaps: it certainly shows that you are proud of your heritage, but that alone is not enough. What more abstract ‘hallmarks’ might we look for if we were indulging in that favourite practice among members our community: Jew-spotting?
For an answer to that, we might look first at the prophetic writings. Micah says: “People tell you what is good, but what does the Eternal One require of you? Only to do justly, and love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” If this is the quintessential message of our teaching, then one could argue that a life which fails to demonstrate justice, mercy and humility is no Jewish life at all.
Later sages, such as the medieval scholar Bachya Ibn Pakudah, took Micah’s central idea and developed it. In his master work was called ‘A Guide to the Duties of the Heart’; Ibn Pakudah argues for an ethical spirituality. Inspired by this and other works, the rabbis in 19th century Lithuania created the tradition now known as Mussar. Mussar is a reflective practice whereby an individual works to acquire middot; characteristics and behaviours befitting a good Jew. A full list of middot can be found in the Mishnaic era work Pirkei Avot (6:6). My personal practice is to read through the list and find choose something which resonates to work on. I assure you that there is always something!
Together, the physical and the more abstract symbols of Jewish life set us on a course to bring honour to God and to our people. The consequence of studying them should be that we will learn to live by them. May this be God’s will.
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