Yom Shishi, 19 Iyyar 5779
Friday, 24 May 2019
Parashat Eikev 2013

Parashat Eikev
Rabbi Pete Tobias

26th July 2013

This week’s Torah portion is one that has particular resonance for me. More than forty years ago, it was the parashah I read at my bar-mitzvah ceremony.·Those who have heard my story (perhaps many times) know that this event signified the moment at which I bade farewell to my Jewish heritage as it had been presented to me at the United Synagogue in which I received instruction. My departure was due largely to the inflexibility of what seemed an endless catalogue of regulations, and a failure of those teaching them to accept any form of challenge to the authority and divine origin of those regulations.

I read only the maftir of the portion, the concluding verses, which were Deuteronomy chapter 11 verses 22 to 26. In the environment in which I celebrated this milestone in my Jewish life, there was no tradition of translating or explaining the verses one read on being called to the Torah. Looking at those verses today, I realise that this is probably a good thing: the words I chanted in my about-to-break voice assured my ancestors that they would, with God’s help, dislodge all the nations from before them and take possession of their land. Three years after the Six Day War, there would have been more resonances than I would have known how to deal with.

There were even more troubling elements earlier on in the chapter from which I chanted, words that had, probably unknown to me, been recited every time I had been present in that synagogue during my formative years. They even find a place in our current prayerbook, though they are rarely, if ever, read (I hope).

Verses 13 to 21, which immediately precede my maftir, form the second paragraph of the Sh’ma. Even though they make reference to teaching one’s children, talking about God’s commandments when lying down and rising up, and binding them as a sign upon one’s hands etc, they are probably not entirely familiar to most Liberal Jews. They are on pages 539-541 of Siddur Lev Chadash. They portray graphically the concept of covenant that is such an essential feature of the book of Deuteronomy.

The authors of this book (and many that follow from it such as Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings, not to mention most of the prophets) used an Ancient Near Eastern political model to describe the relationship between the people and their Divine Ruler. A covenant (brit) was an agreement made (literally ‘cut’, as it was carved into stone tablets) between a mighty Empire (such as Assyria or Babylon) and a vassal state (like Israel or Judah). The stronger party would guarantee to protect the weaker one on the condition that the latter provide tribute (usually crops, flocks, precious metal and soldiers for the army). Failure to provide the required tribute would result in military action, usually swift and deadly.

The theologians of Ancient Israel saw the relationship between the Israelites and God in similar covenantal terms. Deuteronomy 11:13-15 promises that the people will be rewarded if they obey all God’s commandments. The following verses (specifically verse 17) make clear that failure to fulfil their side of the deal will result in starvation and death: ‘…the Eternal One will shut up the skies so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce, and you will soon perish from the good land that the Eternal One is giving you.’ Ouch.

The theological framework that the prophets sought to impose on the Israelite people had a simple purpose. If one was being generous, one might say that it was intended to make the Israelites grateful for the food that they were being granted from the land that they had been given. Indeed, earlier in this same portion is the verse on which the tradition of Birkat ha-Mazon (Grace after Meals) is based: ‘When you have eaten and are satisfied, then give thanks to the Eternal One your God for the good land you have been given.’ (Deuteronomy 8:10). The basis of the covenant was that if the Israelites did what God wanted, then God would be good to them.

But the flipside of this covenant was as brutal as the threats made by those military powers to their vassal states should they fail to please those who ruled over them. Failure to adhere to God’s commandments would lead to the rain being withheld, and the famine and starvation that would be an inevitable consequence of that. In other words, if you don’t behave, then it won’t rain and you will die. And it’s only a short step from that belief to turn it around once more and persuade people that if there is a drought then it’s clearly because they, the people, did something wrong. Ouch again.

I am not sure whether my just turned thirteen year-old brain would have been able to understand the implications of that, even if it had been translated for me. But the rather older model understands now that bidding farewell to a religion that appeared perfectly willing to accept the concept of divine reward and punishment as embodied in that second paragraph of the Sh’ma was a very sound act.

I don’t suppose that the idea of my one day discovering Liberal Judaism, never mind becoming a Liberal rabbi, was in anyone’s mind that August day in 1970. But even if it was only to point to such statements, such concepts and make clear that a theology based on divine reward and punishment was not acceptable in our world, then it will have been a worthy, if unexpected, choice of career. While such threats may have had a purpose in biblical times as a way of encouraging my ancient ancestors to toe the line, a religion based solely on fear is only going to attract followers in a time of crisis. If this Torah portion teaches us anything, it must surely be that we need urgently to discover and promote a new religious framework that emphasises the positive benefits of working to establish justice in our world, rather than dishing out lists of consequences should we fail to carry out the divine will.

You can find out more about the unlikely journey from rebellious United Synagogue bar-mitzvah to Liberal rabbi in Rabbi Pete Tobias’ book ‘Why Am I Here?’ http://amzn.to/12Z5WMo