Being human means dangling simultaneously between two core realities. At one and the same time, on one hand you matter a great deal — it’s all about us! — and on the other hand, you’re not the only thing that matters. We are nothing. It’s not about us at all. Indeed in the end, all of us are human and mortal. We will return to dust.
These diametrically opposed truths are often difficult to hold simultaneously and even more difficult — even impossible — to reconcile. A Chasidic master famously expressed this dual reality in a simple instruction: “A person should always carry two notes, one in each pocket. In one pocket the note should read: ‘For you the whole world was created (Mishnah, Sanhedrin 4:5). And in the other pocket the note should read: ‘I am but dust and ashes’ (Gen.18:27).1
This juxtaposition of the sense that we are everything and we are nothing is central to the human condition. It’s a core element of who we are as people and who we are as Jews. We are everything and nothing at the same time. This dialectic is especially emphasized in Parashat Eikev, in Deuteronomy, chapters 8-11, as the Israelites approach a climactic moment in human history. Will redemption and Revelation really allow for the possibility of creating an ideal society?
Lest the Israelites become too haughty or too self-righteous, God and Moses warn them repeatedly of all the differences and all the consequences of their new environment and their new role in the world. The Israelites are first reminded of the difficult road they have traveled to “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 hardships to learn what was in your hearts ...” (Deut. 8:2). And at the same time they are constantly reminded of the uniqueness of their survival: you were fed manna, your clothes didn’t wear out, your feet didn’t even swell … and the land you are about to enter is an exceedingly good land … where you will lack nothing ... (Deut. 8:4-9). The narrator seems to understand the questions implicit in the narrative at this moment: What did we do to deserve such goodness? Will we always deserve the gift of the Land? Will we always be deserving of such love and protection? Yes and no. It depends. We have no inherent goodness, but we do have the possibility of goodness.
Something of the possibility of creating a good society in this particular Land is in our shared history. We descend from a people who had a close relationship with God and the Land. But will we? It depends on how we use the blessings that we have received. Who we are and what we become is not an inherent reality but rather something earned through actions and opportunities.
We might misread the text and think there is something inherently powerful and worthy about us, descendants of the ancient Israelites. But we actually have no power and might. We are actually not necessarily worthy at all. We are capable of enormous mistakes and misdeeds. What makes us different is our experience of God in the reality in which we live. What makes us humble and not haughty is a constant awareness that we don’t own anything. But rather we are being loaned the Land and the resources and the possibilities by God so that we might make something of human civilization. What makes this possible is our unique sensibility that ultimately it all comes from God (Nachmanides on Deut. 8:18). If we continue to recognize God’s greatness we will likely continue to be protected, but if not we will likely be devoured, either by God’s fire or the Land itself. It is, after all, a land that vomits its inhabitants. Rather we can only continue to merit the gift of the Land made to our ancestors if we behave appropriately (Deut. 10:12-17).
The text quickly reminds us that it isn’t all about us. We might not always deserve such goodness. We were clearly an unworthy group in many ways, as the narration of our failures throughout the desert journey is repeated. Of greatest concern is that we didn’t really believe in God or in ourselves. We repeatedly failed to believe. We weren’t even ready to be monotheists and Moses had to intervene to give us a second chance at Revelation and receiving the gift of the two tablets with the Ten Commandments (Deut. 10:1-11).
But with redemption a memory, and Revelation an uncertain gift, the Israelites prepared to enter into a completely different land with a very different status in the eyes of God. This Land will be tremendous, but they will have to take care of it differently than they took care of the land in Egypt (See Rashi, Gersonides and Bekhor Shor on Deut. 11:9-11). Like them, we must recommit every day to our relationship with God and with the peoples who dwell there in order to continue to exist in it.
We don’t simply deserve redemption, Revelation, and such a precious Land because of something in our essence. It wasn’t created for us to dwell in just because of who we are, rather we have the opportunities to create an ideal society because of some much more important reasons:
- Because we’ve maintained our relationship with God through our ancestors,
- Because we maintained our relationship with the Jewish people, we will enter into it together and share its resources and the responsibilities for its defense, and
- Because of what we do; because of our ethical behavior. In fact, a very unusual statement is made about the relationship between our living in the Land and God’s special concern for our existence there: God’s eyes are watching us and what we do in the Land of Israel in a very different way. “It is a land which the Eternal your God looks after, on which the Eternal your God always keeps an eye, from year’s beginning to year’s end” (Deut. 11:12).
In other words, unlike our covenantal relationship with God which, in the grand historical scheme of things is largely unconditional, our relationship with the Land is conditional. It depends on our relationship with the sacred blessings we’ve received. Do we become arrogant and think we deserve them no matter what, for eternity? Or do we recognize how small we are and that we were only given such blessings in order to become great? We are meant to do greatness not only for ourselves, but also for the world as a whole, from a specific place. This is what Abraham first heard in Gen.12, about being connected to God and particular Land: “And you shall be a blessing.” We can only be a blessing with our God and our Land if we are a blessing to others. In order to do great things and be worthy of the blessing of the Land we must walk in God’s ways, “As God is compassionate, so must you be compassionate; as God does acts of kindness so must you do acts of kindness” (Rashi on Deut.11:22).
We will continue to be able to dwell in it only if we, in all our imperfections, are capable of building a society worthy of God’s attention, worthy of such blessing.
1. Attributed to Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Przysucha, in Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim: The Later Masters (NY: Schocken Books, 1948), pp. 249–250
Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi, Ph.D. serves Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion as the National Director of Recruitment and Admissions and Assistant Professor of Jewish Thought and Ethics. She was also named President's Scholar in 2013. Prior to this appointment, she served as Vice President of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Rabbi Sabath earned a Ph.D. in Jewish Philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary and has co-authored two books and published numerous articles in the Jerusalem Post, the Huffington Post, the Times of Israel, and other venues. She is currently writing a book on covenant theology and co-editing a volume with Rabbi Rachel Adler, Ph.D. on ethics and gender.
"And now, O Israel, what does the Eternal your God demand of you? Only this: to revere the Eternal your God, to walk only in divine paths, to love and to serve the Eternal your God with all your heart and soul, keeping the Eternal’s commandments and laws, which I enjoin upon you today, for your good” (Deut. 10:12-13).
During the summer I work as the Jewish Educator at an overnight camp. This summer I have been teaching our core values through an escape room activity that uses the Holiness Code (Lev. 19) to solve puzzles and unlock a secret box. When the activity is over, we discuss that one of the ways we show we are created in God’s image is to be good people, to treat others with kindness, empathy, and respect, and to live in and way that would make God proud.
I conclude by asking the campers for the Jewish word for a “good person.” Then I explain that the literal meaning of the word, “mensch,” is simply a “man,” which we can describe more broadly as, “a person.” I ask why the word for a good person in Judaism is just person. We talk about the fact that to be a person, to be a human being, means to treat others with kindness, empathy, and respect, and to live in a way that would make God proud. And, as one thoughtful camper pointed out, every person has the capacity to be good, we just have to choose to do so.
In remarking on Deut. 10:13 above, many commentators, including Rashi and Nachmanides, point out that God is not asking for reverence and love, or for us to follow the divine path for God’s sake, but rather for our own. It is for our good. It is not something God needs, but something we need.
This week’s Torah portion, Eikev, is difficult for many as it intimates that those who follow God’s commandments will be rewarded and those who do not will be punished. We all live with the reality that sometimes good people suffer, while some who are unkind and unsavory not only move through life unscathed, but even prosper. We don’t have control over everything, but we do have control over some things, and by choosing to love and revere God, by choosing to be a good person, we take control over what we can, and we make our lives better. It is for our good.
“The Maggid of Mezeritz said: ‘Our good deeds go up to God. Do you know what God does with them? God is a gardener, using our good deeds as seeds. God plants them in the Garden of Eden, and out of them, trees grow. Thus we each create our own Paradise...’ ”1
For our own good, may we plant many seeds creating a beautiful Paradise of which we can be proud.
- Rabbi Chaim Stern, ed., Day by Day – Reflections on the Themes of the Torah from Literature, Philosophy, and Religious Thought (NY: CCAR Press, 1998), p. 309
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
Second Haftarah of Consolation, Isaiah 49:14–51:3
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,599–1,603; Revised Edition, pp. 1,251–1,254