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D'var Torah: Ekev

Deuteronomy, the so-called “Second Law,” is written as Moses’ farewell address to the Israelites—a 34-chapter-long address that covers a lot of ground, including a repetition of the Decalogue, which we read last week. In this week’s sidra, Ekev, the name of the parashah itself calls for examination and comment. Ekev is its second word: “V’haya ekev tish’m’un...,” “And if he will be attentive…” (Deut. 7:12). Ekev, as it’s used here, means “if,” “because,” or even “as a result of,” but a more straightforward word for this conjunction would be “im.” Many commentators throughout the years have seized upon this use of the word ekev to derive any hidden meaning its unusual use might imply. Ekev, vocalized another way as akev, means “heel”; this is the meaning of the name given to Jacob (Ya’akov), who was born “grasping Esau’s heel”; thus akev represents a kind of following-after that hinders or impedes, and we can find this word used in just this fashion in Gen. 49:17, Job 18:9, Ps. 41:9, and other places.

If we use “heel” as the literal meaning of ekev, the first verse can be read as “And it will come to pass on the heel of his attending to these rules….” This alternate use of the word, Midrash Tanchuma1 points out, implies that the verse refers to those mitzvot that are ordinarily less attended to—those that are thrown under our heel, so to speak. Rashi comments that these mitzvot kalot, “light mitzvot,” are those that ordinarily might not attract our attention. The usual explanation of Rashi’s comments is that he is referring to some mitzvot that people, for various reasons, may treat less seriously than others. The Taz,2 however, commenting on Rashi, suggests that the mitzvot to which Rashi refers are good deeds lifnim mi’shurat ha’din: above and beyond the strict letter of the law:.

An example of such a mitzvah of which Chazal speak in this context, according to the Da’at Zekenim m’Ba’alei haTosafot,3 is none other than the mitzvah of tzitzit. This is a decidedly strange assertion, but it is explained by the Pardes Yossef4 in this fashion. The mitzvah to don tzitzit, strictly speaking, is borne by no one. The Torah only requires that if one should wear a four-cornered garment, then tzitzit must be attached to its corners; no obligation whatever exists to wear such a garment. But should one choose to wear such a garment, he therefore voluntarily obligates himself to observe this mitzvah. This voluntary obligation is an example of the attitude of which the Taz speaks.

Now that we’ve thoroughly discussed the second word of the parashah, let’s look at the third. Well, in interests of time, let’s not. Let’s take the broad view. There appear to be two main themes that run through the parashah and the text alternates between them. Theme One is about the Land and how it will fare as a result of the people’s obedience to God and Theme Two comprises reflections of how the people were obstinate and rebellious during their wilderness journey. In the form of a motivational speech, Moses holds forth on these two themes. But if the speech was intended to be motivational, it certainly doesn’t have the characteristics of a motivational speech. A good motivational speech identifies the listener’s strengths and acknowledges past successes. It appeals to the listener’s best abilities and minimizes past failures. But this is not how Moses handles his version of motivation—he repeatedly reminds the people of all of the bad things their parents did during the past forty years, telling them how they infuriated God and were rebellious against God—not to mention Moses himself. So Moses needs to come up with another way to get the people motivated to face their coming conquest; he does this by pointing out that they’ve got some pretty powerful support, the kind that none of the other nations possess, and he reviews that support in some detail. But before the Israelites can fully rely on that support, they must understand that following the mitzvot is essential.

To prove that by following the mitzvot the people can prevail against the Canaanites, Moses points out how there was always food in the wilderness—even if it was only that loathsome manna stuff—that their clothes never wore out, and their feet never even got swollen. So they can be assured that God will be on their side if they just follow God’s rules. Moses also holds out the promise that the land that they will be entering will support them with riches, and here we find (in vs. 8:10) the basis for the mitzvah for the blessing after meals, the birkhat ha-mazon. But Moses sternly warns the people not to become haughty, not to think that the plentiful riches they will obtain are a result of their own power. If the people do not recognize from Whom their power truly originates, their riches, their plenty, will disappear. Later commentators have noted that the quality of “plenty” can easily degenerate, just as the Hebrew word for “plenty,” shepha, by rearranging letters becomes pesha, “crime” or “sin.” And “pleasure,” oneg, becomes nega, “plague,” in just the same way. This kind of interpretation can be seen as a Jewish form of Scrabble.

In vs. 8:3 we read “Man does not live on bread alone, but that man may live on anything that Adonai decrees.” “Bread” is lechem in Hebrew and it’s frequently translated “food,” since the word is really a generic term for sustenance. The root of the noun lechem is lamed-chet-mem. Sharing this root is another noun, milchama, which means “war,” and the verb lachom, meaning “to struggle, as for one’s existence or survival.” Carrying this a little further, “to eat” is tilcham, which can also be translated as “to fight.” It’s implicit in Moses’ message, “beware lest your heart grow haughty” (8:14) that the people cannot live by the lechem of their fighting and struggling alone without recognizing the part God plays. Z’chariah expressed this idea vividly when he stated, “Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit, says Adonai of Hosts” (Zech. 4:6). The wealth the people will obtain while living in the land will not be solely because of their own might or power. The Hebrew word for “wealth” is cha’yil. Well, the word “might” that Z’chariah uses in the verse I quoted is cha’yil, the same word. So it looks like Moses is trying to forge the link in the people’s minds that God’s spiritual cha’yil, “might,” will be the source of the people’s physical cha’yil, “wealth.”

And just to make sure that the people don’t miss the point, Moses makes it plain that it’s not the virtues of the Israelites that will win them the land of Canaan; it’s actually because of the wickedness of the nations who are to be dispossessed. So he enjoins the Israelites not to fail to

...revere Adonai your God, to walk only in His paths, to love Him, and to serve Adonai your God with all your heart and soul, keeping Adonai’s commandments and laws, which I enjoin upon you today, for your good. (10:12–13)

Somewhat lost in the back-and-forth play of the two themes of Land and People is the passing reference to the death of Aaron. Coming right on the heel (ekev) of Moses’ description of the Giving of the Law (Deut. 10:5), in the very next verse Moses tells the people that the “Israelites marched to Moserah. Aaron died there and was buried there.” But that’s not we read in Sefer Bamidbar! In parashat Chukat, Aaron died at Mount Hor on the boundary of Edom, much later in the journey (Num. 20:23–28). Why does Moses misplace the location of Aaron’s death, and why does he mention it in connection with the Giving of the Law?

Fortunately, we can learn the answer to these troubling questions by turning to midrash, the source of all answers to such troubling questions. “Rabbi Yudan b’Rav Shalom said: why did the written word juxtapose the death of Aaron and the breaking of the tablets? To teach that the death of the righteous is as hard for God as the breaking of the tablets.”5 That’s a good explanation, isn’t it? And what about the location of Aaron’s passing? Midrash continues,

...and did Aaron [really] die at Moserah? And did he not die at Mount Hor!…But since Aaron died the Clouds of Glory [which accompanied the nation on its travels] went away, the Canaanites tried to incite them [i.e., Israel]…and Israel wanted to return to Egypt and traveled eight journeys backward [up to Moserah] and the tribe of Levi ran after them and killed from among them eight families, while they even killed from them [i.e., from the tribe of Levi] four [families]…they [i.e., the Children of Israel] said: “who caused us this [spilling of] blood?” They said: “because we did not do kindness to the righteous one [i.e., Aaron] and they sat down and composed his eulogy and did kindness to the righteous one and God regarded this as if he died there [i.e., Moserah] and was buried there.” 6

This midrash essentially tells us that Aaron’s death resulted in a civil war of the tribes against the Levites which drove them all back up the road to Moserah, where the tribes repented their bloodshed and mourned Aaron at Moserah. This is why midrashim are so valuable—they explain everything. Seriously, though, there are a significant number of midrashim on Aaron’s death, enough to fill a book that is called, for some reason, “Midrashim on the Death of Aaron” that was published in the early Middle Ages; this work can be found in several modern collections of midrashim.

The likely historical explanation for the discrepancy between the two versions of Aaron’s death is the political division between the Mushite priesthood of the Northern Kingdom and the Aaronid priesthood of the Southern Kingdom. According to scholars, the polemic of both sides has resulted, for example, in the stories of the golden calf, the denigration of Moses’ wife by Aaron and Miriam, the two versions of building the Ark of the Law (one in this parashah and another in Exodus), the discrepancy in the areas visited by the spies of parashat Shelach L’kha, and the strange description of Moses’ getting a second set of Tablets of the Law, an event that is explicitly mentioned in today’s parashah.

And the drama of this first sermon of Moses in Deuteronomy closes with one of the three perekim that we read when we say the Shema—verses that reflect the two intertwined themes of today’s parashah—verses that enjoin the people to obey the commandments, not to misbehave, to resist being lured by other gods, and so to assure that the new land they will be entering will take care of them and their children.

Shabbat shalom.

July 2010


1. An early medieval compilation of rabbinic midrashim on the Torah

2. Rabbi David Halevi, Poland, 1586–1667

3. A collection of Torah commentaries taken from the Tosafists, disciples of Rashi from the 12th–14th centuries

4. Torah commentary by Rabbi Yosef Patsanovski, Poland, 1875–1942

5. Jerusalem Talmud (Yoma 1:5 [38b])

6. Ibid

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