AUDIO ESSAY: Torah for the Earth - Eikev

Parashat Eikev

Av 18, 5780 – August 8, 2020

Torah Reading: Deuteronomy 7:12 – 11:25

Haftarah: Isaiah 49:14 – 51:3

Welcome back everyone to this week’s Torah for the Earth audio essay. I’m your host, Charlie Forbes, and this week I will be addressing Parashat Eikev, which can have a number of meanings in the Hebrew. Eikev, when taken as part of the opening clause vehaya eikev, can be translated as “And what will happen is”[1] or “as a result of.”[2] But, as Rashi points out, eikev can also mean “heel,” and the suggestion is that the commandments that are given in this parashah are easy to underestimate – so easy, actually, that one may figuratively “tread on them with their heels.”[3] A major theme that is presented in this Torah portion is reward (also its counterpart punishment), and that theme is intimately linked to the relationship between the Jewish people and the conditions of Eretz Yisrael. Moshe goes through great lengths to describe the virtues of the Land – he describes it as “flowing with milk and honey” (11:9) and blessed with the “seven species” (8:8) of wheat, barley, grape, fig, pomegranate, olive (oil), and date (honey). And, if the Jewish people obey the commandments, revere Hashem, and express their love and worship – these blessings of agricultural fertility will be a reward. But Hashem also threatens the nation of Israel with annihilation if they are disobedient – the rains won’t come, the ground won’t yield its produce, and famine will strike. The link between climate and theology is the main message of this parashah and is encapsulated in the second passage of the Shema which is given in verse 11. The condition of the Land is the principle intermediary between Hashem and Am Yisrael (the nation of Israel), and this is essential to remember when considering the observance of commandments that may be overlooked. The small details are incredibly important. This is something we need to remember in a time of ecological crisis – no small deed goes unnoticed, and every individual can make a difference.

One could make the argument that the small deeds discussed in this portion relate to food and sustenance. For example, the seven species are listed – and these varieties of food represent the blessings of the Land of Israel. The offerings of the First Fruits (bikkruim) that were brought to the Temple in Jerusalem for Shavuot were from these seven species; Rabbi Isaac Luria linked the spiritual energies of each fruit to each one of the seven lower sefirot – and these are the characteristics that are refined during the Counting of the Omer leading up to the giving of the Torah.[4] Also, in (11:15) we read: “You will eat and you will be satisfied” – this is, of course, a literal reference to food, but it also involves the mitzvah of Birkat Hamazon (the Grace After Meals): a sequence of four primary blessings that are said to give thanks for the meal and to express gratitude for sustenance. Food is essential for our physical sustenance, but the Torah also illustrates that food is an integral part of a spiritual life which connects us to the Land. But this is a premise that’s actually quite easy to forget. We live in a world where we are presented with an illusion about our food – an illusion in the sense that the cost of our food (including what it took to get to our plate, and the ripple effect of our food choices after eating) are largely hidden from us. And when we can’t attune ourselves to the connection between our food and the land, it’s difficult to be satisfied. We may physically be full, but we lack the spiritual nourishment to understand our place within the larger ecosystem of life. In (8:3) we read: “Not by bread alone does [the hu]man live, rather by everything that emanates from the mouth of G-d.” In Kabbalistic philosophy, there is a concept known as hishtalshelut[5] – this is the chain of eminence that proceeds from G-d to the rest of creation. In the creation story of Genesis, humans were created last. One way to read the story is that, because we were created last, this places us in a superior position above the rest of creation. Another way to read it is that because we were created last we are dependent upon everything that came before us – we are connection to the entire chain of life that has emanated from the mouth of Hashem. The custom of Mayim Achronim (the final waters),[6] the ritual washing of the hands before the Grace After Meals, pays homage to this reality. Before thanking Hashem for sustenance, we ensure that our hands are not dirty so that we can have clarity of thought when vocalizing a blessing. This is as much about cultivating a relationship with Hashem as it is about developing a closer relationship to our food and enriching a consciousness that orients itself around the Land. This is how we enrich the variety of sustenance we get from food.

I really hate the popular idiom “the devil is in the detail.” But there’s something in it linking this parashah to the ecological crisis. In its colloquial usage, it’s quite literal; the phrase prompts us to believe that there is an inherent danger in certain aspects of the detail. But the phrase actually originates from an earlier iteration of “G-d is in the detail”[7] – suggesting that attention to detail is paramount to realizing the higher meaning of a task. And this is a concept that arises in (8:1) where we read: “The entire commandment that I command you today you shall observe to perform.” When considering the term ‘the entire commandment’ “the Sages in the Midrash infer…that one who begins to perform a commandment should persevere to its completion.”[8] The essence of Parashat Eikev is that possession of the “good Land” (8:7) is conditional. We should be diligent to attend to the details and carry out the details of a task. Hashem demands reverence and loyalty, but so too does the Land. This is one reason that this Torah portion recounts some of the sins in the Wilderness – through our relationship to food and the small details we have the ability alter our trajectory by using previous wrongdoings as a motivator for change. Living in the Land can be a reward or a punishment and either reality is a choice; it depends upon our actions. Whether or not you believe Hashem will punish us, you can certainly believe that the Land will.

The Mishnah says, “Be as careful with a minor mitzvah as with a major one, for you cannot know the rewards of the mitzvot.”[9] It’s not so much that one mitzvah is weighted over another, but rather that we must treat all mitzvot with the same reverence. At the very least, if you take the view that a mitzvah is simply a good deed, that deed is still serving as an instrument of the greater good. Every mitzvah is part of a singular essence that is working for the greater good of the world. The Mishnah also states “mitzvah goret mitzvah – one good deed leads to another good deed”[10] and this can have a profound effect on the momentum we build for positive change. The ecological message related to these mishnayot is that we cannot know the relative value of a good deed.[11] There are so many people out there working hard to build a better world by restoring land, protecting indigenous food pathways, maintaining food sovereignty, running local businesses, resisting the corporatocracy, and fighting for the rights of all races, genders, and peoples. And sometimes it may feel like we’re walking upstream and not making any progress. But this Torah portion is telling us to keep fighting, keep believing, because all of those actions do have practical implications – in our relationship to Hashem, and in the conditions of the Land that we live within.

Thank you all for listening. That’s all for now and I’ll catch you next week.

Topics Include: The link between climate and theology, spiritual sustenance from food, and the momentum of positive change


Listen to this Podcast

References

Eskenazi, Tamara Cohn, and Rabbi Andrea L. Weiss, eds. The Torah: a women's commentary. CCAR Press, 2017.

Miller, Chaim. "Chumash: The Gutnick Edition." (2011).

Scherman, Nosson. "The Stone Edition of the Chumash: The Torah, Haftoras and Five Megillos, with a Commentary Anthologized from the Rabbinic Writings." (1993).

[1] Miller, "Chumash: The Gutnick Edition," p.1171 [2] Eskenazi, The Torah: a women's commentary, p.1089 [3] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.981 [4] Arizal, Sefer Halikutim, parshat Eikev, chapter 8. As found at: http://canfeinesharim.org/eikev-shivat-haminim-the-seven-fruits-of-israel/#9 [5] https://www.chabad.org/multimedia/video_cdo/aid/4467681/jewish/Torah-in-Ten-Eikev.htm [6] This is different than Mayim Rishonim, or the First Waters, which is said before eating bread [7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_devil_is_in_the_detail#cite_note-Titelman-1 [8] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.981 [9] Pirkei Avot, 2:1 as sourced from: https://www.chabad.org/therebbe/article_cdo/aid/4032819/jewish/Avot-21-On-the-Essence-of-the-Mitzvah.htm [10] Pirkei Avot 4:2 [11] https://www.chabad.org/therebbe/article_cdo/aid/4032819/jewish/Avot-21-On-the-Essence-of-the-Mitzvah.htm

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