Thursday, August 6, 2015

Silver Swans and Crusts of Bread - Reflections on Parashat Eikev 5775

(Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25)

The silver swan, who, living, had no note,
When Death approached, unlocked her silent throat.
Leaning her head against the reedy shore, 
Thus sang her first and last, and sang no more:
"Farewell, all Joys! O Death, come close mine eyes!
More geese than swans now live, more fools than wise."
                                                     - Orlando Gibbons, 1612

The entire Book of Deuteronomy is Moses' swan song, his final testament; his last, desperate attempt to warn the Jewish People of the ethical pitfalls that attend to great prosperity and power, and which could (and did) lead to our undoing.

We are taught that Moses had a debilitating speech impediment. And yet here, at the end of his life, his silent throat is unlocked, eloquently and passionately bidding us not to behave like the boorish, honking goose. 

Parashat Eikev is curious in the following respect: together with Dvarim and Va'etchanan, these first three parshiot, i.e., the first 334 verses of his Grand Oration, contain only a scattering of Mitzvot (commandments). One might have expected Moses The Lawgiver to be cramming his final words with law.

Instead, he speaks of broad themes, and drives them home over and over again:

- Each time I prayed for Gcd to forgive the Israelites, they were forgiven; but when I asked forgiveness for my own (minor) tresspass, I got crickets;
- You get to settle the Land of Israel, while I will be left behind to die in this desert;
- Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had their squash together and Gcd loved them for it, but you all, their descendants? You leave an awful lot to be desired;
- So the blessings about to be bestowed upon you are not a consequence of your great righteousness, but rather the fulfillment of the Divine Covenant with the Patriarchs;
                                                AND YET...
- Gcd loves you despite your failings, because He sees the great potential in you;
- Gcd pushes you and tests you and challenges you to help you grow and develop;
- Don't anger Gcd by worshiping false gods (can I say that enough times?);
- Observe, internalize and do the Mitzvot, because they are ultimately for your own good;
- And in light of the (undeserved) blessings that you are about to receive, do not forget to thank Gcd in your prosperity.

Moses is sharing a hugely important secret with us: the secret of Context.

Context is defined as the set of circumstances or facts surrounding a particular event or situation. For our purposes, Context means a Torah-based framework for understanding our relationship to Gcd, as well as for understanding ourselves, our neighbors and the greater world we inhabit.

That's why here, at the very beginning of his speech, Moses isn't giving us any specific mitzvot; they will come later. 

But right up front, he is laying down a historical, social, ethical and political framework to use in understanding the mitzvot he is about to teach; tools that he is also bequeathing to us, here in the 21st Century, to accurately analyze our own lives and our own current events (it's the 58th Century, actually, but hey - who's counting?).

Without context, facts are merely isolated data points. But with context, data becomes information, organized facts become knowledge - and knowledge is the prerequisite to wisdom.

Moses famously says,  "...not by bread alone does Man live, but from everything which flows from Gcd does Man live." (8:3) The entirety of that which flows from Gcd, i.e., understanding the deeper meaning of life; not just our physical existence, but the holistic view of mind, body and spirit - that is Context.

That's also why Moses commands us this week to bless Gcd for our most basic need, that of food: "And when you eat and are satisfied, you must bless the Lord your Gcd..." (8:10) For millennia, no matter how poor or how rich, Jews do not let a crust of bread pass their lips without saying thank you to Gcd, because in so doing, we provide context to the act of eating.

And the hundreds of other blessings the Jew recites every day constitute the backdrop, the context, of our spiritual life.

Moses was the greatest prophet that ever lived, and yet even he could not foresee every future problem the Jewish People would encounter on our long and difficult path back home. So he gave us a set of tools, adaptable to every culture and situation; a moral sextant to guide us through the inky night of the diaspora.

As parents, we must absolutely teach our children how to properly perform the Mitzvot. But we must also provide them with Context, a cogent worldview that explains why the Mitzvot matter. When you raise a child in the Context of Torah; that is, when you raise a child who can't wait for Shabbat to arrive; when you raise a child who wants to pray every day; when you raise a child who respects her parents out of love and not out of fear; when you raise a child who willingly separates a portion of her allowance to those less fortunate without being told; when you raise that kind of kid, you don't have to worry about teenage drunkenness, accidental pregnancies, assimilation and intermarriage. 

In the age of the 24/7 cable news cycle, we are deluged by thousands of data points every day. The News outrages, shocks, titillates, entertains - for a moment, anyway, before we are distracted by the next disaster or wardrobe malfunction or Kardashian break up.

In the absence of context, the news itself become little more than a carnival freak show, itself a distraction from the most urgent issues of our time.

But with the Perspective of Torah, wise conclusions can be reached. In fact, with the proper perspective, Torah might even be found in the lyrics to a 400 year old madrigal. (wink)

Shabbat Shalom.

PS: To read an earlier Blog Post on this Parasha click HERE.

PPS: Anyone in the Lehigh Valley is cordially invited to my Tuesday parasha classes. There is of course no charge, and people from many different walks of life participate. Please contact me for times and places.


  1. Great as usual! Shabbat Shalom Rabbi!
    (and don't forget the trombone :)

  2. I just shared this on my FB timeline. Really great drash. On a personal note, the madrigal lyrics made me smile!!