Too little? Or too much? In our Torah portion for this week, Ekev, Moses recounts the difficulties faced by the Children of Israel in their wanderings. He has had reason to be exasperated by their reaction to the hardships they met along the way, but he also acknowledges just how difficult it has been. “ Remember the long way that your God has made you travel in the wilderness these past forty years, in order to test you by hardships to learn what was in your hearts: whether you would keep the divine commandments or not.” (Deuteronomy 8:2) Now that they are on the verge of attaining the goal for which they have waited and suffered, one would be justified in expecting Moses’s message to be triumphant. It is, after all, the culmination and validation of his leadership. No longer in the wilderness, they are about to enter and occupy a good land, flowing with water, a land of wheat, barley, vines, olives and honey – they will lack nothing. Surely there is no longer anything to worry about. And yet, there is danger here, too. “Take care lest you forget your God and fail to keep the divine commandments, rules, and laws which I enjoin upon you today. When you have eaten your fill … beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget your God who freed you from the land of Egypt, the house of bondage … and say to yourselves, ‘my own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.’” (adapted from Deuteronomy 8:11-17).
Why would it be so bad to do this, to say, I myself have built the good life that I and my children are living? The Torah here recognizes the temptation to blame misfortune on others and good outcomes on our own efforts. But the Torah does not allow such a consoling fantasy. God favours neither rich nor poor, guards the rights of the widow and orphan, and loves the stranger; the Israelites must do the same, and they must especially love the stranger, for they were strangers themselves. The text seems aware of the risk that, after settling in the land, it takes no time at all to lay claim to all that one has, and jealously guard it from the next stranger to show up. And that is what Moses is warning against – just as you might have been tempted to abandon your values when you were poor, so much the more so will you be tempted to abandon them when you have plenty. For it is the values of society, here identified as God’s commandments, which give us all the possibility to flourish.
The Torah acknowledges strength and talent, but it also acknowledges that sooner or later, everyone is a stranger, everyone can become sick, poor or abandoned, and only a society that protects the weak can also give opportunity to the strong.
The Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt tells the story of a Jewish woman from Hungary. As a little girl, a week before the Nazis took over, she received the gift of a bicycle; all she cared about was riding it through the streets of her town. A week later, everything changed. The temptation is to say, “I suffered, I came with nothing, but through the work of my hands, I have become successful. Why can’t these people do the same?” This is what the Torah forbids: you must remember the source of your blessing and share it. We often translate the word ‘tzedakah’ as charity, but the two concepts are essentially different; to be charitable is to be generous and caring; a good thing, to be sure. But to give tzedakah is to do right. That is why the commandment to give tzedakah falls upon the poor as well as the rich. A righteous society is one where everyone feels equally responsible for the values that allow survival for all, as well as success for the few.
Cantor Gershon Silins
2nd year student rabbi
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.