Thursday, 14 Aug 2014

Written by Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah

Parashat Eikev includes much about consequences: the consequences that will follow if the people obey God’s commandments, and the consequences that will follow if they disobey. Indeed, the word Eikev, which gives the portion its name, means principally, ‘as a consequence of’. And so, we read at the very beginning of the parashah (Deuteronomy 7:12):

V’hayah: eikev tishm’un It shall come to pass: as a consequence of you heeding these laws and keeping them and doing them that YHWH your God shall keep for you the covenant and the love [chesed] that he swore to your ancestors.

In addition to the vowels, the Masoretic text also includes the cantillation marks that indicate how the text is to be recited, providing punctuation and emphasis in much the same way as the script of a play. The very first word of the parashah, V’hayah – literally, ‘It shall be’, has a prefixed conjunction – the consonant , ‘Vav’ – which acts to convert the verb from the perfect into the imperfect tense, and so from a past to a future sense. It also stands on its own: ‘It shall come to pass’; the disjunctive ‘munach’, ‘resting’ sign, beneath it indicating a pause. Rendered dramatically, imagine a narrator proclaiming: ‘It shall come to pass’ – and then pausing before continuing… The force of this standalone declaration is heightened by a vertical line between V’hayah and the word that follows, eikev: V’hayah  I  eikev. Moreover, the drama is intensified by the subsequent linkage between eikev and the very next word in the text, tishm’un: eikev is also accompanied by a munach sign, but of a conjunctive kind, linking it to the r’vi’i sign over tishm’un: ‘as a consequence of you heeding’: eikev tishm’un.

The significance of ‘eikev’ becomes apparent when you think about substituting it with another word. The verse might have used, e.g., im, ‘if’: ‘It shall come to pass: if you heed…’ Indeed, ‘im’ is used in similar contexts elsewhere (See: Exodus 19:5; Deuteronomy 19:8). But eikev, based on the root, Ayin Kuf Beit, to ‘follow at the heel’, carries an additional resonance: as a consequence of: ‘on the heel of’. According to the narrative, Jacob –Ya’akov – grabbed his twin’s ‘heel’ – akeiv – as they were emerging from the womb (Genesis 25:26). Years later, in anguish, Esau cried to his father: ‘was he then called Ya’akov that he might supplant me – va-yak’veini?’ (Gen. 27:36).

Eikev opens by outlining the benefits that will accrue ‘as a consequence of’ heeding, keeping and doing the laws/commands of YHWH. These are not confined to prosperity and well-being ‘on the land that [God] swore to your ancestors to give to you.’ (7:13); the benefits of obedience also include dispossessing and destroying all the other peoples roundabout (7:16 ff.). The consequences of disobedience are also spelt out: ‘like the nations that YHWH shall cause to perish before you, so shall you perish: as a consequence of, you not heeding [eikev, lo tishm’un] the voice of YHWH your God’ (8:20)

So: ‘consequences’ Deuteronomy style: a game of rewards and punishments.The context is very important.The book of Deuteronomy was ‘discovered’ – or rather, ‘written’, according to critical scholarship – during the reign of King Josiah of Judah around 620 BCE (2 Kings 22:1; 8), as part of his project of radical reform of a nation led astray by his grandfather Manasseh into the worship of local gods at myriad shrines (2 Kings 21:1ff.). Deuteronomy is an assertion of the absolute authority of God, whose glory and power emanates from Jerusalem.

So, what do we make of Eikev for our own lives today? Interestingly, the parashah includes a passage, focusing on the dependence of ‘the land’ and its inhabitants on God sending rain or withholding it (Deuteronomy 11: 13 – 21), which the first rabbis set aside as the second paragraph of the Sh’ma (Mishnah B’rakhot 2:1ff.). With the rise of Progressive Judaism in the early 1800s, the paragraph became controversial because of its clear statement of reward and punishment theology, and was excluded from the prayer-books of Liberal Judaism until the 1995 edition, Siddur Lev Chadash, where it appears in the ‘Prayers for Various Occasions’ section. More recently, ecological awareness has provided a new perspective – and so to paraphrase: If you care for the Earth, the rain will arrive in due season, the early rain and the late, and the land will give forth its fruits and provide food for your grazing animals. But if you do not look after the Earth, there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce, and you will soon perish… (See also: David Cooper – quoted in Siddur of Beit Klal Yisrael).

Concern for the Earth is not the only contemporary issue that we might connect with Eikev. The maftir, the concluding verses of the parashah, which restate the consequences of keeping the commandments are very chilling in the context of the on-going Israeli-Palestinian conflict: ‘Every place on which your foot treads shall be yours from the wilderness to Lebanon and from the river, the River Euphrates, until the Western Sea.’ (11:24). How ironic that a portion, which turns ‘on the heel of’ – ‘eikev’ – should move from the figurative to the literal: from an expression, to actual feet expanding the territory of ‘the land’ with every tread. Of course, by tradition, Jews are not literalists when it comes to reading the text. But we are only too well aware that fundamentalists abound in Israel today among the ultra-orthodox – and among the Bible-obsessed ultra-right, too…

Literalism apart, Eikev draws attention to what we already know from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict about the play of ‘consequences’: as a consequence of triumph: humiliation; as a consequence of humiliation: hatred; as a consequence of hatred: violence; as a consequence of violence: further violence, in a never ending cycle. To generate a new set of life-affirming consequences, all those involved need to pause:

V’hayah, eikev tishm’un – It shall come to pass, as a consequence of you heeding the voice of the other:

Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah
Ordained at Leo Baeck College 1989