Then as now, we need gratitude, faith and effort to claim our place in the world.
Table for Five: Eikev
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
And the Lord, your God, will dislodge those nations before you little by little. You will not be able to destroy them quickly, lest the beasts of the field outnumber you.
Dr. Sheila Tuller Keiter, Judaic Studies Faculty, Shalhevet High School
Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf? This verse is troubling, especially since just a couple of chapters later, the Torah assures us that Israel will drive out the other nations and destroy them quickly (Deut. 9:3). Furthermore, Israel’s subsequent history questions the wisdom of a gradual conquest. Throughout the period of the judges and kings, Israel repeatedly fell to the temptation to worship Canaanite gods, thus incurring God’s wrath, culminating in the destruction of the first Temple and the Babylonian exile. Given the Canaanites’ deleterious influence on the Israelites, would it not have been preferable to rid the Promised Land of its idolatrous occupants immediately?
In contrast to the spiritual and cultural threat of local paganism, the alternative, wild predatory animals brought on by lack of human settlement, posed a physical threat. Anyone who has camped in bear country knows the potential perils. Ancient Israel housed lions, bears, wolves, leopards, snakes, and scorpions. Thus, Deuteronomy seems to pose an insoluble dilemma – either die spiritually or die physically.
We need not cast the conundrum in such stark terms. Threats to our existence, our safety, our way of life continuously endure. There is no such thing as perfect safety. Threats can emerge from the natural world and from other humans. Even the Promised Land is not risk-free. Danger is part and parcel of the human condition. Our verse asks us to accept this reality, to take rational precautions, and to carry on our national destiny as God’s people despite the dangers.
Rabbi Nolan Lebovitz, Adat Shalom
Why does the Torah tell us that God will “dislodge those nations” if in fact we have always had to live in the Land of Israel alongside other peoples? Each time Jews have fought for control over the land, Jewish men and women have had to fight and die for every square inch of holy inheritance – under the leadership of Joshua, David, David Ben-Gurion, and others.
At no time, did God or the Jewish People completely rid the land of other nations. So, if this never happened, it must not be what the Torah means. Perhaps the Torah intended for us to consider our partnership with God in creating a Jewish governance for the land. In this way, God helps us dislodge the control of other nations over our ancestral land.
The Torah inspires our peoplehood and that in turn causes us to demand a national home. In 1917, Lord Balfour famously recognized that “a national home for the Jewish People” was necessary. The State of Israel’s Declaration of Independence addressed the Jewish People’s right to self-determination: “This right is the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign State.” Most of the world has never recognized this Jewish right as a natural right. We believe in our right because the Torah promised us self-determination in our land. We believed in that right then and we believe it now. We always will.
Kylie Ora Lobell, Contributing writer, Jewish Journal
This Torah portion is teaching us that God is watching out for us, and He is the source of all our strength. We need to rely on God and trust that with Him on our side, we will be able to prosper. Unfortunately, the Jews in the desert needed to be taught that time and time again. They did not have faith in God, and they acted accordingly.
For instance, when the manna fell and the Jews were told not to hoard it, some still did. When the Jews go into Israel – as they’re preparing to do in this parsha – they need to figure out once and for all that God is going to continue to protect them. What you can also learn from this parsha is that there must be a reason why God is destroying those nations little by little. Why doesn’t he get rid of them all at once? That would certainly make the Jews’ lives easier. However, if the Jews didn’t have any adversaries or challenges, and they were given everything at once – like, let’s say, the manna in the desert – they wouldn’t appreciate it. Instead, if it happens little by little, they’re going to be able to cherish every miracle that occurs. Every time another nation is destroyed, they can rejoice and praise God.
With every little miracle that God shows us, we need to recognize it and praise him. Faith is a muscle, and only by working hard to make it stronger will it stick.
Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, B’nai David – Judea
This reference to “the beasts of the field,” as well as other numerous references in Tanach to lions and bears roaming the Israelite countryside, remind us that the ecology of the land has changed completely. Species once numerous, are literally gone. The mitzvah to not take a mother bird along with its chicks (or eggs) is understood by numerous commentators as a command to encounter our native species gently, i.e. taking what we need while ensuring that the species itself will persist. Within our own lifetimes, the size of the bird population across the US for example, has plummeted, and we know that the same is true for a myriad of living things once common.
We should all read Psalms 104 now and then. (It is actually part of the Rosh Chodesh liturgy.) The Psalm expresses sheer wonder at the glory of the natural world God has created, and the variety of living things that are God’s handiwork.
“The trees of the LORD drink their fill, where birds make their nests; the stork has her home in the junipers… The high mountains are for wild goats; the crags are a refuge for rock-badgers… How many are the things You have made, O LORD; You have made them all with wisdom; the earth is full of Your creations.” In numerous Psalms and by, extension, in our liturgy, the natural world serves as a text for beholding and appreciating God’s presence and beneficence. If for no other reason, let’s work to preserve it.
Cantor Michelle Bider Stone, Shalom Hartman Institute of North America
Imagine the scene. You stand on the precipice of a great reward. You have waited years for this moment, perhaps your entire life. It isn’t going to be easy. There will be challenges, but you’re ready. Now, imagine, someone comes and says, “Slow down, be patient, this won’t happen overnight.”
This is how this verse hits me. The Israelites have been waiting 40 years to enter the land of Israel. This generation has been preparing their entire lives to reach the promised land, awaiting both the challenge and the reward. They stand on the banks of the river; ready to go. Then they are told, you are not going to conquer this land quickly. It’s going to happen “little by little.” Sounds frustrating, no?
But we know that this is true with most worthwhile challenges we face in our lives. We not only need to prepare during the time spent in the “wilderness”, but once we enter the “land,” proper patience is required to be successful. It could be a tough work assignment, a physical challenge, a spiritual/emotional journey, or an interpersonal relationship that needs attention. In all these situations, it is going to take time and patience to work through the challenges and reap the reward. So, while I’m sure it was hard for the Israelites to hear at this moment, just as it can be difficult for us to hear, the Torah is sending an important psychological message for us all to internalize.
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