Friday, 30 Jul 2010

Written by Rabbi Harry Jacobi MBE

In our Parasha, Ekev, we read that God led the children of Israel forty years in the wilderness, afflicted them and made them suffer in order to test them. And later that God fed them with Manna, which their fathers knew not, again in order to test them (Deut. Chap. 8). The children of Israel were confronted with and required to accept a concept of God who puts them on trial, both by making them suffer and by providing them with sustenance. It is a concept we may well have difficulty in grasping, accepting or sympathising with. Do we today feel that when suffering strikes us on the one hand, or when we enjoy our daily Manna without worry, that God tests us?

Our illustrious forebears however walked humbly with their God, had unshakable faith, convinced that they were always on trial before him, being tested by him. The Talmudic sages said: “Happy is he who stands up to the tests he is subjected to, for the Holy One, blessed be He, subjects each of His creations to the test. The rich in respect of their generosity to the poor, the poor in respect of their ability to remain steadfast and prevailing over hardship and suffering.” They even spoke of yissurin shel ahava, the “suffering of love” that came upon them, not to prove God’s love for them, but to test and prove their love for their God. It is one of the most perplexing, daunting and instructive expressions of our Jewish life.

It is remarkable and inspiring for us to recall how pious Jews in the past, acquainted with sorrow and grief withstood their trials of faith. How the biblical Job, bereft of family and possessions and struck down with horrible, painful disease, cried out,”Even if you slay me, O God, I will love you” (Job 13:15).  Or how Rabbi Akiba, tortured on the burning stake for teaching Torah during the Hadrianic persecutions, and about to die, cried out: “Now I rejoice, for I understand the true meaning of Ve-ahavta et Adonai . . .  bechol nafshecha – you shall love the Lord . . . with all your soul” (Deut. 6:5).  Or how Yossel Rakower, fifty-seven years ago in the burning Warsaw Ghetto, cried out to his God: “Now lest it seem to you that you will succeed by these tribulations to drive me from the right path, I will notify You, my God and God of my fathers, that it will not avail me in the least. You may insult me and castigate me and take from me all I cherish and hold dear in the world. You may torture me to death, I shall still believe in you. I shall love you no matter what you do to test me.” We cannot but bow our heads in tribute and admiration of Job, Akiba and Yossel Rakower. They leave us a testimony of faith and courage, and we can but hope and pray that if ever the yissurin shel ahava, sufferings of love afflict us we may show the same fortitude and steadfastness, courage and faith.

Whilst we can well understand that sufferings and afflictions may well put one’s faith and trust in God to the test, it is not so easy to understand how the daily supply of manna put the children of Israel to the test. The great medieval Spanish rabbinic commentator Ramban comments on our Parasha: “Sometimes the Almighty puts his servants to the test by means of hard labour to see whether they remain faithful and love him. Sometimes, however, he overwhelms them with bounties (i.e. manna) to see whether their love and respect for him increases. “And Rabbi Obadiah Sforno, who lived in Bologna in the sixteenth century, comments: “‘To test and prove you’ (Deut. 8:2), means how far you obey God after he has delivered you from your suffering.”   

Our long Jewish history furnishes us with many examples of how we have passed the first test, the test of yissurin shel ahava, the sufferings of love, and also how we have failed the test of manna, of being overwhelmed with bounties. Right at the beginning of our history the children of Israel turned to God in times of famine and peril and turned away from God in times of plenty and ease. That is the strong impact of our great Prophetic literature. The first prophet, Amos, chides them for lying idly on beds of ivory, leading a luxurious life of riches in summer and winter houses, yet forsaking God, and ignoring his commands. And Hosea compares Israel to a luxurious vine, that yields its fruit in abundance, ”yet there is no faithfulness or kindness and no knowledge of God in the land” (Hos. 4:1). Jeremiah is scathing about the ladies of leisure who deck themselves with ornaments of gold, show off the latest fashion of scarlet dresses and enlarge their eyes with paint, yet forsake the Lord, their God. And at the end of Deuteronomy 32:15, we read: “But Yeshurun [that is, Israel] waxed fat and kicked, became sleek, yet forsook God who made him, and scoffed at the rock of his salvation” (Deut. 32:15).

As often as we have in our long history passed the test of yissurin shel ahava, as often we have failed the test of manna and have been condemned to punishment of further suffering for our failure. Will we in our generation also fail to pass the test of manna? For just as at the time of the Prophets we lack nothing. Sure we complain of the effects of recessions, long waits for hospital appointments, deterioration and high fares for public transport and many services. Yet, when confronted by shocking and tragic pictures of starving children and refugee camps in many parts of our world, we are thankful to be living in Britain. Nineteen years ago, my wife and I welcomed the first Leo Baeck College Rabbinic student from Moscow to our house and took him shopping to a supermarket. He could not believe his eyes at the superabundant choices, when he had no choice and had to queue for all basic necessities in Moscow.

The words of our Parasha, addressed to the first generation of the children of Israel, are relevant and of vital importance also to us: “When you have eaten, and are satisfied, and have built goodly houses and live in them, and all you have is multiplied, then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the Eternal, your God. Beware lest you say in your heart: My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth” (excerpts from Deut. 8:12–17). Our Parasha contains the well-known phrase included in the Grace after meals: “Ve-achalta, ve-savata u-verachta et Adonai Elohecha, When you have eaten and are satisfied, then you shall bless the Eternal, your God” (Deut. 8:10). May it not be said of our generation that we too failed the test of manna; let it be said that we have eaten and were satisfied, lived in goodly homes, yet we remembered and blessed the Eternal our God.

Rabbi Harry Jacobi MBE
July 2010

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.