613 to 3

Posted on August 4, 2023 by Ed Tolman

There can be no better summary of this week’s Torah portion, Eikev from the Book of Deuteronomy, than that found in the writings of the prophet Micah (6:8). “What the Eternal requires of you: Only to do justice, and to love goodness and to walk modestly with your God.” Rabbinic commentary tells us that Micah has in these words condensed the 613 commandments found in Torah to just three principles. Justice, acts of loving kindness (Gemilut Chasadim), and humility.

In Eikev, Moses continues his sermons to the people, perhaps as I see it in the form of a living will or as others read them as a pep talk. He recounts all that God has done for and given the people and how they should always be mindful of and thankful for those gifts with the understanding that they should never be so arrogant as to think that all that was achieved was accomplished by themselves alone. He assures the people of God’s promises that are still to be and will be fulfilled, emphasizing that for the fulfilment of those promises they need to keep faith in the Eternal. He reminds them of the times they lost that faith. Moses tells the people to open their hearts to God, that is to cut away the thickening from their hearts, and to not continue being a stiff-necked people, but to care for the fatherless, the widow and the stranger. To do justice; to love kindness and to walk modestly with God.

While Moses’ words are given in the context of the relationship of people to God and of God’s relationship to people, they speak to us, even today, also in the context of the relationships of people to people and people to the world around them.

In his essay on Parashat Eikev, the late Rabbi Harvey Fields tells us that Moses presented four guidelines to the Israelites for moving forward in their lives. Again, while they speak in Torah of people’s relationship to God, they also can easily be interpreted as people’s relationship to fellow humans.

1. The vicissitudes of life, as exemplified in Torah by the hardships the Israelites suffered, teach that humans do not live by bread alone, but, as in Torah, by what God decrees or commands. In a people-to-people context, life requires more than simple physical sustenance, but also spiritual, moral, cultural and ethical input from and wisdom and knowledge about the world around us.

2. Moses tells the people that they should thank God for the land that they will be given and the abundance they will receive. Being genuinely thankful for the blessings of life, including the blessings of family, of community, of work of knowledge, of wisdom, of creativity, are in themselves the food of life.

3. Moses admonishes the people that when they are sated with their material wealth, they should not become haughty and not forget God’s commandments and not believe that they achieved their wealth by their own doing. Today, in our own lives, we must remember to not allow our material gains and achievements to make us arrogant and forget that they are rarely accomplished alone, but that along the way we have benefitted from relationships and input by others, our teachers, our mentors, our partners, and our community.

4. Finally, Moses warns the people that G-d has not allowed them to conquer the Promised land because of their own virtues. The triumphs they achieve are but gifts of God, not solely of their own specialness. Our own pride of accomplishment must be always taken in perspective. Self glorification is false self-flattery. Arrogance is not always the best or most honest path forward.

As Fields points out, ancient and modern commentators, with their focus on the relationship of humans to God, have looked at the words of Moses in Parasha Eikev and wondered why he felt obliged to utter them. Perhaps, they say, Moses worried that the people, once sated with lands and abundance, they would think they owed nothing to God and forget God’s commandments and that all the bounty was due only to their own efforts and their own virtues, becoming self-arrogant. The Ranbam (Nachmanides) said that history humbles humans, that the pride of accomplishment must be put into perspective and that abundance is a gift. People should not be falsely proud or become arrogant, but should always remain faithful to God.

Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin of Temple Sinai in Oakland, California has encapsulated these words of Moses into modern context more beautifully and meaningfully than I could ever do with the following. She writes that “Humility and gratitude (and I would add kindness) are the most essential values. They are the foundation of all things positive and good because they make us look outward, rather than inward. When we are humble, we realize how much we rely on others and on things that are not of our own making. We know we need others (and I would add, others need us), we know how much of our lives are based on what others have done for us, rather than on what we accomplished for ourselves. Humility enables us to better see ourselves in the context of the whole, to know how very small and insignificant we are in the grand scheme of life and history. And that humility feeds our sense of gratitude. Likewise, people who feel gratitude and express it to others tend to be kinder and more thoughtful (and I would add more caring) people, aware of what happens around them, not just to them or for them. Grateful people do not take others or others’ efforts for granted. Being aware of the work of others enables us to see the needs of others, as well. Humble and grateful people (and I would add kind and caring people) are better for the whole of humanity.”

Shabbat shalom,

Ed Tolman,

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