Parshat Eikev: A Call to Action

The Torah provides many opportunities to apply ancient precepts to today’s issues.

In a Dvar Torah (commentary) written for Uri L’Tzedek, Sam Fleischacker, professor of philosophy at University of Illinois-Chicago, recently linked the weekly Torah portion, “Eikev” to the contemporary focus on immigrant justice. JCUA’s Asaf Bar-Tura finds relevance in Fleischacker’s Dvar  for our work. Bar-Tura sees the portion as a call to action.

Eikev: A Call to Action

By Asaf Bar-Tura
Coordinator, Jewish-Muslim Community Building Initiative

Asaf Bar-Tura

Asaf Bar-Tura

In Parashat Eikev the Israelites are on the verge of entering the Promised Land after 40 years of wandering in the desert. And so Moses, their leader who cannot enter with them, explains to them why they were given the privilege of receiving the land, and warns them regarding how they should conduct themselves once inhabiting it.

One point of interest for us at the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs is that Moses gives his people specific instructions about how to treat the Ger, the non-citizen. In Deuteronomy 10:19 he famously says:

וַאֲהַבְתֶּם, אֶת-הַגֵּר:  כִּי-גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם, בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.

(“Love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”)

There are important ties between this message and JCUA’s work for comprehensive immigration reform. Sam Fleischacker, a philosophy professor at UIC (and a member of the advisory committee to JCUA’s Jewish-Muslim Community Building Initiative), takes up this message of the parasha in an insightful and inspiring Dvar Torah. He writes:

Prof. Sam Fleischacker

Prof. Sam Fleischacker

The Jewish philosopher Hermann Cohen suggested that it is only in loving the stranger that we fully express our monotheism. […]  In practice this means, for Jews in Israel, seeing God in the Palestinians, and for Jews here in America, seeing God in the Latina/os and other immigrants who work in our restaurants and stores and homes.  […] We were not delivered from Egypt to set up another ethnocentric system that oppresses outsiders. 

We were delivered, instead, precisely to spread the message that the true God cares for all humanity (that is how we become a “holy nation”).  And that requires that we understand “love the stranger” broadly and richly:   not just in legal terms but in the expansive terms that allow us to mirror God’s own love, and help bring about God’s own justice. (For Fleischacker’s full commentary, click here).

I would like to add another aspect to the conversation. This Parasha is the basis for Birchat Hamazon, the blessing we say for the food and other forms of sustenance that we have. And food makes an important point in this Parasha:

As Moses retells the story of leaving Egypt in Deuteronomy, one verse in particular from Eikev draws a lot of commentary relating to the “manna” that God provides.  We read that a promise is made to the people that when they reach the Holy Land they will be able to “eat bread without poverty.” (Deut. 8:9) What does this mean?  Is it simply a blessing for prosperity, to always have enough to eat? Is it implying that while in the desert they were eating bread while in poverty?  It seems the line denotes that bread, or “manna,” that physical sustenance alone, is not enough.

Rashi, a famous medieval scholar, comments on this verse, comparing physical sustenance to spiritual fulfillment. He explains that the Torah speaks not of poverty of insufficient calories nor of not enough money to buy food.  The subject is spiritual poverty.  God is reminding us that there is more to life than simply taking whatever sustenance is provided to you.

Moses is preparing the people for the implementation of the commandments, for actions to live out the Torah. Rashi also adds that the answer to feeding spiritual poverty is to perform all of the mitzvot, the commandments, in their entirety.  That being said, whatever we believe to be the true answer to spiritual fulfillment, we see that Moses is basically preparing the people to act.

We are compelled to interpret, discuss and learn from what we are presented with in order to set an example, or perhaps even to create our own experiences.  We are faced often in our lives with making “Jewish choices.” Sometimes that even means making the choice to be Jewish, and we learn from Parshat Eikev that to simply take what is given to us is not enough.  Moses stressed to the people that this is their time to act.  He states: “Rather, it is your own eyes that see all the great work of Hashem…” (Deut. 11:7) It is a recurring theme for Jews today to make an experience relevant to their lives. At a Passover Seder we stress that it was not other people that were brought out of Egypt, but that it happened to us.  We connect to our history by owning our experiences today and striving to find new meaning in them.

It is worth keeping in mind that as the Israelites were on the verge of entering the land, Moses warns them that the land is given to them, not because of their righteousness, but because of “zchut avot” (the rights of their forefathers) and the wickedness of the current residents. They still must prove their worth. Listening to Moses today, the parasha calls on us to take leadership, practice humility, and adhere to the imperative to strive for a better society.

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