In Parashat Ekev (Deut. 7:12–11:25) Moses seems to be expressing a concern about the future of the Children of Israel in the Promised Land. Moses opens with a manual of campaign by which the Israelites, despite being inferior in number, will little by little overcome the more numerous Canaanites, the fate of whom is utter destruction –of the men, the women, the children and their idolatrous culture.
In such circumstances it is hardly surprising that Moses might worry about the moral future of an Israelite people which has won an overwhelming victory and might forget its humble origins and indeed the raison d’être of its existence. Moses fears that military and political power coupled with economic prosperity will sap the moral vigour of the people. He, therefore, proposes a ‘tool kit’ for a decent and balanced moral society in the wake of abundance.
First, Moses counsels against arrogance, reminding the Israelites (in fact in last week’s parashah) that its election was not on the basis of merit but Divine favour to ‘the smallest of peoples’ (Deut. 7:8).
Second, Moses demands that the nation recall its inglorious origins as a frequently failed wandering mixed multitude which underwent hunger and dependency in order to appreciate that ‘a human being does not live by bread alone’ (Deut. 8:3).
Third, whether by organic realisation or Divine requirement, the giving of thanks in the face of prosperity is ordained (Deuteronomy 8:10). This verse was utilised by halachah as the proof text for the requirement to recite birkat haMazon: prayer after eating.
Fourth, Moses warns against the corruption of power and wealth, particularly the arrogance which flows from it. Good fortune is frequently not of the recipient’s making, and Parashat Ekev starkly reminds the beneficiary of the folly of the declaration (Deut. 8:17), ‘My own power and the might of my own hand have made this wealth for me’.
As if to drive the message home, Moses fifth and finally warns the new nation that even victory is no proof of righteousness or virtue. (Deut.9:4).
Although I would not suggest that there is a direct comparison between Caananite and early Israelite societies and the current political and economic conditions of our time, Moses’ discourse in Parashat Ekev ought to give us a moment of pause for reflection. Moses feared that prosperity would corrupt a society such that its moral well-being would be threatened by the inability of the powerful to retain their moral compass. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the society of which we are beneficiaries heralded untold and easy economic prosperity for many – and perhaps in our desire to have a share of the goodies we failed to appreciate some important lessons. We became arrogant enough to think that we were entitled to constant economic advance; we ignored the proper regulatory restraints as continuous growth in profits became the ends not the means; we failed to appreciate the effects on many by assuming that all were progressing; we were smug enough to believe our efforts justified untold rewards; and finally we thought that our successes were themselves evidence of well-being.
The current global fiscal crisis – which will pass in time – and the alienation of many people from the democratic, political process – which is probably more dangerous than economic instability – ought give our society an opportunity to reflect on its very nature, to consider whether relentless economic progress in the face of threats to both our physical environment and our moral well-being is how we wish to lead our lives and what we might wish to bequeath to our children and future generations.
We are a society rich in resources but we have often neglected our greatest asset: the soul of each man, woman and child with the ability to share with, and care for, one another.
The haftarah for Ekev is from the prophecy of Isaiah (49:14–51:3) and is the second of seven haftarot of consolation which follow Tisha b’Av (Thursday 29 July 2009). It reminds the Jewish people of its early history when Abraham was called and responded. In our generation we are neither hopeless nor helpless. Success will belong to those who, to paraphrase the words of Isaiah (51:1), are ‘pursuers of justice’ and ‘seekers of God’.
Rabbi Danny Rich
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.