"All the world needs is love." We hear that refrain in our music, in our theologies, in conversations prosaic and profound. While there is no denying the power of love as the essential and irreplaceable core of our lives, there are also other things we need: a home, sustenance (food), and meaningful work—among others. And even love is multilayered and often complicated.
While the Hebrew prophets often use the metaphor of love and marriage to describe the relationship between God and Israel ("I will betroth you to Me forever," Hosea 2:21), the Torah uses different metaphors to describe that relationship. Deuteronomy 5:2–3 provides one of many beautiful examples:
"The Eternal our God made a covenant with us at Horeb. It was not with our ancestors that the Eternal made this covenant, but with us, the living, every one of us who is here today."
How this covenant is understood forms the center of the conversation about what it is to be a Jew. What is the nature of this covenant? Is it binding? Who is included? What are its obligations—upon us, and upon God? Are there consequences for violating the covenant, and if so, what are they?
Parashat Eikev addresses one of these questions head on, the conditional nature of the covenant:
"And if you do obey these rules and observe them carefully, the Eternal your God will maintain faithfully for you the covenant made on oath with your fathers: [God] will favor you and bless you and multiply you . . ." (Deuteronomy 7:12).
In this extensive passage, the Torah continues to elaborate on the conditional nature of this covenant. Compliance and faithfulness bring blessings of womb and land, as well as victory against our enemies who abide within it.
"Keep, therefore, all the Instruction that I enjoin upon you today, so that you may have the strength to enter and take possession of the land that you are about to cross into and possess, and that you may long endure upon the soil that the Eternal swore to your fathers to assign to them and to their heirs, a land flowing with milk and honey." (Deuteronomy 11:8–9)
"Hear, O Israel! You are about to cross the Jordan to go in and dispossess nations greater and more populous than you: great cities with walls sky-high . . ." (Deuteronomy 9:1)
"Know then this day that none other than the Eternal your God is crossing at your head, a devouring fire; it is [God] who will wipe them out—subduing them before you, that you may quickly dispossess and destroy them, as the Eternal promised you." (Deuteronomy 9:3–4)
Elements of this text may sound like a manual for the Taliban (For example, see Deuteronomy 7:25, "You shall consign the images of their gods to the fire . . . "). It's an important reminder for Jews to know that the Torah contains terrifying material before engaging in the activity of pointing out the terrifying verses in the holy texts of others. Though some Jews still lean on these terrifying texts as mandates for present action, most of us do not. Judaism is continually evolving. The universe of commentary and the lived experience of history are part of the expansion of Torah. Affirming the divine image, tzelem Elohim, in each human being is our most fundamental mitzvah, "religious obligation."
Inside these troubling texts lies one of my most favorite passages from the Torah:
"Remember the long way that the Eternal your God has made you travel in the wilderness these past forty years, in order to test you by hardship to learn what was in your hearts: whether you would keep the divine commandments or not. [God] subjected you to the hardship of hunger and then gave you manna to eat, which neither you nor your ancestors had ever known, in order to teach you that a human being does not live on bread alone, but that one may live on anything that the Eternal decrees. . . .
"For the Eternal your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with streams and springs and fountains issuing from plain and hill, a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey . . . where you will lack nothing. . . . When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to the Eternal your God for the good land given to you.
"Take care lest you forget the Eternal your God and fail to keep the divine commandments, rules, and laws which I enjoin upon you today. When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased and everything you own has prospered, beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget the Eternal your God—who freed you from the land of Egypt, the house of bondage . . . and you say to yourselves, 'My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.' Remember that it is the Eternal your God who gives you the power to get wealth, in fulfillment of the covenant made on oath with your fathers, as is still the case" (Deuteronomy 8:11–18).
This passage speaks to me and to the community of which I am a part. We have built fine homes, our stocks and investments have multiplied, and so much of what we own has prospered. Yet, it is easy for us to think it is because of the power of our might: our own education, our own talents, our own perseverance has won this wealth for us. We forget that in the web of the universe, we are all connected. We forget that our successes depend on the successes and sacrifices of countless others, we forget how dependent we are on a larger society, on the planet and its health. We forget our obligations to others—and, we forget that with all this material wealth, we will not be happy or even satisfied without gratitude.
"When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to the Eternal your God for the good land given to you" (Deuteronomy 8:10).
Life (with its gifts) is not earned or won. It is a gift. We need to be aware of the blessings, giving thanks.
The text cautions that our residence on the land—whether it be Israel, Palestine, America, or the planet as a whole—is contingent upon gratitude. We will need to move beyond, "It's mine," "I earned it," "I worked for it," "My ancestors won it for me," or "God promised." We need to shift our perspective somehow from ownership to gift. The land, the water, springs and fountains, wheat and barley, vines, figs and pomegranates, olive trees and honey are all gift. The love may be unconditional, but the gift is perishable.
"Unless the Eternal builds the house, the builders labor in vain" (Psalms 127:1).
Gratitude for the source of life must be at the center. And the consequences if not?
"If you do forget the Eternal your God . . . I warn you this day that you shall certainly perish" (Deuteronomy 8:19).
Rabbi Shira Milgrom is a rabbi at Congregation Kol Ami and is part of a unique rabbinic partnership of two co-senior rabbis in White Plains, New York. She is the author of articles about Jewish spirituality, education, healing, and women in Judaism and is the editor of a unique siddur used now for two decades in settings across the continent. She is blessed to learn continually about loving from her husband, children, and grandchildren.
Rabbi Milgrom's d'var Torah explores our conditional brit, covenant, with the Eternal. We read, "If, then, you obey the commandments . . . I will grant the rain for you in season" (Deuteronomy 11:13–14). These words are part of the second paragraph of the Shema, which is recited traditionally. Our Reform siddur, prayer book, Mishkan T'filah, removed this second paragraph of the Shema because the theology of divine reward and punishment is troubling. It does not address the cases when the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper.
In his article in My People's Prayer Book,1 Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff proposes two responses to address this dilemma. First, we cannot fathom God's justice. If God is the manifestation of all of the mysteries beyond our limited human comprehension, we can never fully conceive God's justice. The righteous are not always rewarded and the wicked are not always punished and we simply do not know why.
Second, Dorff believes the Mishnaic teaching that the reward of performing a commandment is the propensity and opportunity to perform another, and the result of wicked acts is the propensity and opportunity for more wickedness.2 Thus, we do the right thing because we desire to act morally, not out of hope for a reward, and we avoid evil acts because they are unjust and not out of a fear of punishment.
For me, this second argument is compelling. I do believe that the positive or negative drive behind our acts and intentions returns to us. And yet, I have witnessed and comforted far too many who suffered greatly through no fault of their own. I cannot believe that there is a reason for their suffering. Tragedy is incomprehensible by nature. But for me, the Eternal is just, and I think that in times of devastation, we experience a mix of Divine, transcendent sadness along with our individual tears.
It is not necessary to read the second paragraph of the Shema as a literal statement of God's reward and punishment. Instead, Torah provides us with a blueprint for just living and connection through observing mitzvot. With thoughtful observance of this moral and religious guide, and a greater conception of a just world, I believe that we will reap rewards. They may not be instantly apparent to us, but a connection to an ever-present just force permeating creation enables us to slowly unravel the mystery we call the Eternal.
- Elliot N. Dorff quoted in, "The Shema and It's Blessings," My People's Prayer Book, volume 1, Lawrence A. Hoffman, ed. (Woodstock, Vermont: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1997), p. 107
- Mishnah, Avot 4:2
Rabbi Jessica Kessler Marshall serves Temple Beth Or in Everett, Washington.
Eikev, Deuteronomy 7:12–11:25
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,379–1,408; Revised Edition, pp. 1,226–1,250;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 1,089–1,114