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D'var Torah: Ekev


At Horeb you so provoked the Lord that the Lord was angry enough with you to have destroyed you. (Deut. 9:8)

This week's parashah is a golden calf redux—it contains a retelling of the sin at Mt. Sinai (referred to as Horeb throughout Deuteronomy). In addition to Moses rehashing the golden calf incident, he repeatedly returns to the theme of stamping out idolatry. This theme is found throughout the entire book; like Google's motto, we're told "don't do evil."

In case you've been living under a rock during the last decade, you know that a wildly popular series of books appeared during this time, written by one J.K. Rowling about a lad named Harry Potter. A movie on the sixth book of the series was released a few weeks ago. The books are a literary tour de force that incorporate the eternal theme of good versus evil. This series' schtik is a riff on that theme; here innocent youth is pitted against great evil. Then it occurred to me that the theme of innocence and evil is also present in the Bible, and it occurs repeatedly in Deuteronomy and is a major part of our sidra too.

In Harry Potter, the contrast is not between "good" and "evil"—it's between "normalcy" or "ordinariness" and absolute, unspeakable evil, where an innocent child—he's not especially "good," he's just "normal," sort of; Harry, like his peers, is capable of doing magic—this child becomes the target of a wizard who possesses super-superhuman power and seeks to subjugate every living being and even death itself. It seems to this evil wizard, Lord Voldemort, that the only obstacle to his success is the child, Harry. Our sidra alludes to exactly this kind of struggle between "normalcy" or "ordinariness" and absolute evil, exemplified by the peril that faces the people should they succumb to idolatry. Idolatry is the "Lord Voldemort" to the Israelites—the temptation to become like their pagan neighbors and forget their roots and their covenant with God.

Extending this analogy further, we can see that Harry's school headmaster, Dumbledore, corresponds to Moses, who attempts to teach and guide the Israelite people (read "Harry") before he dies, knowing that he will be unable to enter the "Promised Land" and to be there to guide the people in overcoming the temptation of idolatry. Like Dumbledore, whose personal failings condemn him to dying before Harry can face his final challenge, Moses can only offer his best advice and instructions to the Israelites as he comes to the end of his life. We can see how this analogy can be extended to identifying Harry's replacement mentor (hint: he has long, greasy hair), but that would bring us to the book of Joshua, and I'm sure you don't want to wait around here until Simchat Torah, when we read Joshua 1 as our haftarah. So let's end this digression and return to our sidra.

I began by quoting a verse from Chapter 9. In chapter 7, Moses condemns idolatry, here he does it in the context of the destruction of the indigent peoples of Canaan.

You shall consign the images of their gods to the fire; you shall not covet the silver and gold on them and keep it for yourselves, lest you be ensnared thereby; for that is abhorrent to the Lord your God. You must not bring an abhorrent thing into your house, or you will be proscribed like it; you must reject it as abominable and abhorrent, for it is proscribed. (7:25–26)

Even the reuse of materials that had been associated with idolatrous practice was proscribed; the term that is used here is cherem, meaning "a proscribed thing." Back in verse 7:2 (in last week's reading), the words, "you must doom them to destruction (hacherem tachareem)," "destroying they are destroyed," are used to describe how completely the Canaanite nations must be destroyed. The meaning is clear: an Israelite who appropriates an idolatrous object for his own use, even if it is not to be used for idolatry, is to be destroyed like the Canaanite. If the use of objects that had been used for idolatry would earn the people the same fate as the Canaanites, then how great must be the transgression of making an idol de novo—think of the golden calf.

Back in Chapter 9, Moses now continues to describe how God reacted to the people's worshiping an idol and how God determined to punish them. What can we learn from the descriptions of the golden calf incident here and in Exodus about its possible origins and meanings? What is the symbolism of the bull?

The use of the bull in ancient Middle Eastern religions was widespread. Its symbolism was common in Egypt, Canaan, and Mesopotamia; figurines of bulls and calves have been found at several Canaanite archeological sites and in one Israelite site in the Samarian hills. One Canaanite myth describes the storm god Baal fathering an ox while the Canaanite chief god El is sometimes referred to in inscriptions as "bull El." Ancient imagery employed the bull as either a representation of the deity itself or the deity's mount, with the god standing on the animal's back. Given the association of the bull and calf with the Canaanite religions, using a calf figure as the object of the Israelites' worship at Mt. Sinai might seem to us to be a natural choice. But to the authors of Deuteronomy this symbolism might not have been as clear—it might have had political implications too.

From a close reading of the text in Exodus it would appear that the calf was actually intended to replace Moses and function as his link to God, rather than function as a depiction of God or even as an idolatrous replacement. The hypothesis that the golden calf might have been a representation of God's "mount" on which God was thought to be invisibly present is a concept not unlike that of the Ark, where God's presence was considered to reside above its cover, surrounded by the wings of the cherubim.

Clearly the biblical text does not treat the calf as a benign stand-in for Moses, however. Even though the people's intention might have been solely to supply a leadership figurehead rather than a substitute for God, the event was considered by the Bible's authors to have violated the commandments prohibiting the worshiping of other gods and the making of idolatrous images for worship.

Other sources of the bull imagery should be mentioned. It's quite possible that the entire golden calf story was a fabrication designed to denigrate either the Aaronid cult of the south, or later, the northern cult for their use of golden calves for ritual purposes, as we see in this passage in Kings:

Then Jeroboam built Shechem in the hill-country of Ephraim, and. said in his heart: "Now will the kingdom return to the house of David. If this people go up to offer sacrifices in the house of Adonai at Jerusalem, then will the heart of this people turn back unto their lord, even unto Rehoboam king of Judah; and they will kill me, and return to Rehoboam king of Judah." Whereupon the king took counsel, and made two calves of gold; and he said unto [the people]: "Ye have gone up long enough to Jerusalem; behold thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt." And he set the one in Beth-el, and the other put he in Dan. (1 Kgs. 25–29)

As J. Tigay relates in his commentary on Deuteronomy:

With the passage of time people began to venerate [the calves], as shown by Hosea's complaint that people were kissing calves (Hos. 13:2). This development may have been facilitated by the fact that the calves were not kept hidden, as the cherubs were in the Holy of Holies, but stood outdoors in sanctuary courtyards and were visible to the public. Later, after Jeroboam's calves came to be treated as idols, the manufacture of calves was seen in hindsight to lead inevitably to idolatry, and the story about Aaron's calf was revised to show the phenomenon as sinful from the outset. This, the theory goes, is the version that appears in Exodus and is reflected in Deuteronomy. (J. Tigay, JPS Torah Commentary on Deuteronomy)

Returning to where we left Moses' sermon to the people in Chapter 9, we read the description of how he pleaded with God not to destroy the people for their sin of worshiping an idol by suggesting that by doing so, it would appear to the other nations that God only freed them from Egypt to die in the wilderness since he was powerless to fulfill his promise of bringing them to the land he promised. As Moses claims, it was his interceding with God that saved the Israelites from certain destruction at Mt. Sinai, and implying that, should they succumb to idolatrous practices again, the nation would surely be destroyed.

By coupling the story of the golden calf to the denouncement of idolatry and the destruction of the idolatrous Canaanites, Deuteronomy is preaching a very strong cultic message: if you fall to the temptation of idolatry it will result in your personal destruction.

Another observation about this parashah is that it includes the second of the three paragraphs of the Sh'ma: Deut. 11:13–22 (the first is Deut. 6:4–8 and the third is Num. 15:37–41). In his Me'Am Loez, an 18th-century Sephardic commentary on the Torah, Rabbi Yaakov Culi said that these paragraphs are said every day since they include all of the Ten Commandments. One Rabbi Levi (his must be a very uncommon name because he's otherwise unidentified), sought to identify how these passages correspond. Several of these correspondences are quite contrived, but the idea that all of the commandments are contained in the verses of the Sh'ma is an appealing one and this could be a main reason why this prayer is considered the most important in the liturgy.

Commandments Sh'ma

1. I am the Lord your God.

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God,

2. You shall not serve other gods.

The Lord is One.

3. You shall not mention His name in vain.

And you shall love your God (he who loves Him will not mention His name in vain)

4. Remember the Sabbath.

So that you may remember all my mitzvot (Shabbat represents the whole Torah)

5. Honor your father and mother so that you may live long.

So that your days may be lengthened on this earth (most likely through honoring father and mother)

6. You shall not murder.

. and you will perish quickly from the good land (he who kills is killed)

7. You shall not commit adultery.

Be careful that your heart be not tempted.

8. You shall not steal.

And you will gather in your produce (yours but not your neighbor's)

9. You shall not bear false testimony.

The Lord your God is true (truth is the signature of God)

10. You shall not covet.

Put these words on the mezuzot on your house (on your house, not your neighbor's)

Moving to Chapter 11, we see that the theme of idolatry is still lurking there in the text. Moses allows that perhaps agriculture in Egypt might be just a tad better than in the land the Israelites are about to enter:

For the land which you are about to conquer is not like the land of Egypt, from which you have come, where when you planted your field you watered it with your foot.... the Land which you are about to conquer, a land of hills and valleys, receives its water from the rains of the heavens. (Deut. 11:10–11)

What's this about? Watering with one's foot? This strange phrase probably originated from the method farmers opened and closed their irrigation ditches in the Egyptian fields, by shoving the earth to open and subsequently close channels through their crops, using their bare feet. Since Egyptian culture was centered on the Nile, farmers always had a (mostly) plentiful source of water for their crops.

Not so in Israel, where, as Moses points out, crop irrigation depends on rainfall. So are the Israelites correct in their complaints about Egypt "being better"? The topic in the last sidra, Va'etchanan, about the "theme" of this section of Moses' sermon, based on the Sh'ma, is to love/fear/respect God. In looking for the answer to this interesting question, I noted that several commentators point out that the word "ki," "because," is used at the beginning of Deut. 11:10, thus linking it thematically to the previous p'sukim, which clearly reiterates this theme:

And now, O Israel, what is it that God demands of you? It is to fear the Lord your God, to walk in his ways and to love Him. Keep, therefore, this entire mitzvah. that you should conquer the Land.

So why does the Torah say that Israel's new home is better than Egypt? It's the theme of God's love, stated in the following verses.

It is a land which the Lord your God looks after, on which God always keeps His eye, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year. (11:12)

And it follows with the section of the Sh'ma that we read at every service, about rain in every season:

If you obey the commandments, I will grant the rain for your land in season. then you shall eat and be satisfied. Be careful, lest you be lured after other gods. for God will be angry. and He will shut up the skies and there will be no rain. (11:13–16)

So agriculture in Israel is better than Egypt because it is in Israel that the land has God's love; the Israelites can ensure that God's care of the land will continue as long as they remain faithful to the mitzvot, avoid idolatry, and "fear the Lord."


August 2009





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