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Does God Offer a Quid Pro Quo? – Eikev

God says, do good and you’ll be rewarded. Why can’t we see it?

This week our writers outdid themselves, offering five fascinating perspectives on one of the most important questions of all time.

Table for Five: Eikev

 Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

And it will be, because you will heed these ordinances and keep them and perform, that the Lord, your God, will keep for you the covenant and the kindness that He swore to your forefathers. -Deut. 7:12

 

Dr. Sheila Tuller Keiter, Judaic Studies Faculty, Shalhevet High School

Welcome to Deuteronomy’s world of covenantal theology. Israel must obey the commandments, and God must bless Israel with progeny and prosperity in the Promised Land. However, in this verse, God promises one additional element: kindness.

This is confusing since brit (covenant) and chesed (kindness) are mutually exclusive concepts. A brit implies reciprocal contractual obligations. Each party’s obligations are contingent on the other party’s performance of their obligations. Chesed, however, implies no obligations. Kindness is kindness precisely because it is not owed or required.

How then can God promise Israel both covenant and kindness? If Israel keeps the commandments, God owes them descendants and the land. If they fail to keep the covenant, God owes them nothing. If, through magnanimity, God chooses to honor His commitments without requiring Israel honor theirs, then God’s kindness essentially vitiates the covenant, rendering it meaningless.

In truth, there is no kindness in giving reward to those who have not earned it. If God rewarded Israel despite their sinning with impunity, it would breed entitlement, undermine responsibility, and deny Israel the benefits of the commandments. What kind of kindness is that?

The chesed of our verse refers to the extra kindness cultivated by healthy relationships. When both sides of a contractual relationship fulfill their obligations, they build trust and can expand their relationship with further acts of kindness beyond their contractual responsibilities. This is true for any covenantal relationship, whether with God, an employer, or a spouse. Do right by the other, and kindness will follow.

 

Rabbi Elliot Dorff, American Jewish University

I have contradictory reactions to this verse. On one hand, this verse and those that precede and follow it, promise good things if you obey God’s commandments and bad things if you do not. As much as that would provide a simple, quid-pro-quo rationale for obedience, it simply does not work that way in life, as the biblical books of Job and Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) already attest.

The classical Rabbis of the Talmud and Midrash also struggled with this, offering a variety of ways to explain the discrepancy between what Deuteronomy promises and what actually happens in life, including an assertion that the accounts will be rectified in a life after death. To my mind, though, their most sophisticated response to this is to deny it: Ben Azzai taught: “Follow even a minor commandment and flee from a sin, for one commandment generates another, and one sin generates another… The reward for a commandment is [the likelihood that you will do] another, and the penalty for a sin is [the likelihood that you will do] another.” (Ethics of the Fathers 4:2).

At the same time, parts of life very much accord with Deuteronomy’s assertion here. Our relationships with other people, no less than our relationship with God, do depend on fulfilling our mutual commitments. Sometimes we fail each other, for none of us is perfect; but restoring the relationship requires a renewed commitment to the relationship. That is what Elul and the High Holy Days are all about.

 

Rabbi Shlomo Seidenfeld, JMI/Aish Scholar In Residence

Let’s be honest, certain Mitzvot just don’t excite us. We all “get” and naturally resonate with Shabbat, visiting the sick, embracing the convert, comforting a mourner, etc. But some Mitzvot just don’t pop in the same way. While some are celebrated others are relegated. I’m sure you could compile a list.

To some degree, we all assign weight or value to things. It helps us make difficult decisions when interests are in conflict. In a way, the world of Mitzvot is no different. Some just seem more important or more accessible or more relevant. But weighing Mitzvot has a big downside. It diminishes the very real effect that each one has on our nervous system and the subliminal impact that each one has on our character. You see, growth is never visible in real time.

Our Parsha’s opening verse addresses this hierarchy and delineates the special blessings that flow when we embrace every Mitzvah. It trumpets the power of every holy act and dismantles the notion that any Mitzvah is “minor”.

By analogy, this teaching also refutes the dangerous if not natural inclination to “weigh” the contributions of people. To “valuate” others based on their wealth, academic achievements, professional accolades or other external barometers of success. It highlights the invisible contributions of every soul and the enormous blessing that flows when we treat each Mitzvah and every person with dignity. Some Mitzvot just don’t excite us. But all Mitzvot ignite us. Shabbat Shalom.

 

Rabbi James Proops, Associate Rabbi, Young Israel of Century City

Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin (1816-1893) asks why our pasuk was chosen to begin a new parasha when it is a continuation of the speech begun in last week’s portion. He answers by explaining that until now the details of the speech had addressed commandments that are only relevant when Bnei Yisrael are in the Land of Israel. However, the ‘ordinances’ that are introduced by our verse are not only to be kept in the Eretz Yisrael, but also pertinent when we are in exile.

Rashi (1040-1105) points out that the curious use of the word ‘Eikev’ meaning heel, suggests that the specific ‘ordinances’ referred to by this verse are those which are often considered lighter, not taken as seriously and therefore trodden upon. Rabbi Shimshon Refael Hirsch (1808-1888) says the ‘ordinances’ which tend to be stepped over with little attention and consideration are those commandments bein adam l’chaveiro, between man and his fellow.

Now, possibly more than ever, we see around us a culture that disregards the feelings of others, and an inability to be cordial with those with whom we disagree. The Torah is teaching us that one must pay the same level of attention in fulfilling the commandments imbued in “ve’ahavta le’reiacha komacha – loving your neighbor” as we do to the laws of Shabbat and Kashrut. By doing this “the Lord, your God, will keep for you the covenant and the kindness that He swore to your forefathers.”

 

Kylie Ora Lobell, Contributing writer, The Jewish Journal

In this passage, Moshe is giving his final statements to the Children of Israel, telling them that if they obey HaShem’s commandments, they will be rewarded. Seems simple, especially since they witnessed HaShem’s glory in the desert and have a direct connection to Him through Moshe. So why did they keep messing up? And why aren’t we all keeping the 613 commandments since we have the Torah, which is the explicit word of HaShem? It’s a question I ask myself all the time.

When I forget to say a bracha before eating, when I speak lashon hara or I rush through davening, I know I’m not doing my best. But the truth of the matter is that HaShem didn’t create human beings that would be perfect robots and never break any of His laws. If that were the case, we’d see a direct reward and punishment system whenever we did anything right or wrong. Why woould anybody sin if they knew what the negative consequences would be?

Instead of following the commandments for a reward, I primarily try to do it for a stronger connection to HaShem. I also know, in the back of my head, that my life will improve. The more observant I have become, the better my life has gotten. That can’t be a coincidence. The stronger our connection to HaShem becomes, the more faith we have and the more fulfilling our lives will be. Anything we receive in return is just extra. The connection is the reward in and of itself.

With thanks to Dr. Sheila Tuller Keiter, Rabbi Elliot Dorff, Rabbi Shlomo Seidenfeld, Rabbi James Proops, and Kylie Ora Lobell

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Read more at the Jewish Journal.

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