Survival and Sustenance

Eikev, Deuteronomy 7:12–11:25

D'Var Torah By: Jonathan Cohen

Parashat Eikev, the third Torah portion in Deuteronomy, addresses the promises associated with the realization and fulfillment of Israel's covenant with God on the one hand, and mentions the destructive and painful consequences of abandonment of – or disrespect for – God on the other. This stark dichotomy between life and progeny, well-being, and security that are assured if the people of Israel internalize and live by the commandments as opposed to loss, pain, and death if they do not is further developed in later passages of this book. Here, the purpose is to offer instructions and guidelines toward the conquest of the land of Israel, its settlement, and continued life in it. Moses offers these directives in a carefully constructed context: that of the Israelites' difficult journey in the desert, culminating in the survival of those who would enter the Promised Land.

There are many noteworthy elements (both attractive and challenging) in this parashah, including a description of salient differences between the lands of Egypt and Israel, an argument for a divine sense or purpose in suffering, and a reminder that conquest and success reflect neither the innocence or righteousness of the victors, nor the guilt or failings of the defeated. Yet, arguably the core of Moses's teaching in this portion speaks to the mindset – the psychological and spiritual preparation – of his followers as they prepare to invade the Promised Land. On one side are persistent doubt and insecurity in the face of the challenge of conquest (Deuteronomy 7:17-18, 21). Indeed, fear functions as a kind of "book-end" framework for the contents of this Torah portion. As it is mentioned in the opening verses of the portion, the deterrence and awe experienced by those who neighbor a robust, assertive Israel also ends it (Deuteronomy 11:25). On the other side of this psycho-spiritual continuum are overconfidence, and an exaggerated sense of power and entitlement (Deuteronomy 8:14, 17; 9:4). Fear and self-doubt can constitute obstacles to the realization of individual and collective potentials. Overconfidence and feelings of superiority can also lead to transgression and loss. The Mosaic narrator of our text advances a solution to both predicaments: Moses's instruction mandates recognition of – and reliance upon – divine power that may inspire, resolve, and enable achievement while promoting a realistic, more balanced sense of self.

The juxtaposition between insecurity and overconfidence is also associated with material, economic circumstances. The Israelites' fear and doubt relate to their abilities to conquer and acquire an already inhabited land. They occur in the context of lack and dependence (Deuteronomy 8:15-16). In contrast, overconfidence and an exaggerated sense of privilege are presented as by-products of conquest and economic growth: they arise in the context of newly achieved material comfort (Deuteronomy 8:11-14). One of the strategies used in this Torah portion to address the risks of arrogance is the coupling of reminders of the desert experiences with promises of well-being and plenty (for example, Deuteronomy 8:1, followed by 8:2-5; 8:7-13, followed by 8:14-16; 9:1-5, followed by 9:6-8). Abraham Ibn Ezra (a commentator, poet, and philosopher who lived in Spain in the late eleventh and twelfth centuries), emphasizes that the failure to recall the experiences of slavery during the desert journey is associated with haughtiness. He reinforces the biblical prescription of memory as an antidote to conceit and overreliance on one's own power (Ibn Ezra on Deuteronomy 8:14, 18).

Our parashah presents the struggle for higher purpose, support, and inspiration in situations of lack or need on the one hand, and abundance and presumed invulnerability on the other. If any single idea or formulation in our text encapsulates this human challenge, it surely is the notion that humanity does not live by bread alone (Deuteronomy 8:3). Through centuries of commentary and other rabbinic writing, this verse has been recalled and variously interpreted. It is also repeated in the Christian scriptures (Matthew 4:4).

One rabbinic document that cites this verse is a responsum (a rabbinic ruling by correspondence) composed by the prominent Ultra-Orthodox authority Rabbi Yechiel Jacob Weinberg, also known as the S'ridei Esh (for the volumes of halachah that he composed under this title). The Hebrew words s'ridei esh literally mean "remnants of the fire" and reflect this leading rabbi's experience as a survivor of the Holocaust. Indeed, Rabbi Weinberg indicates in the opening paragraph that this ruling dates from the Nazi period, when Jews could not congregate beyond their synagogues in Germany and surrounding occupied countries.

The question the S'ridei Esh asked was whether it would be permissible to hold concerts and lectures on profane topics in the synagogue. In permitting this, he wrote:

"As these days occur in a time of distress and deprivation and as the people are inflicted with suffering, being excluded from other places, and they sustain insults and abuse, [and] it is a mitzvah to encourage them and reinforce their spirit. Further, we should be concerned that they may be diverted to follow the liberals [referring to Reform Jews] who do produce concerts in their synagogues as the people are eager to hear and enjoy music, and in the end they may be influenced by the liberal opinions that the liberals spread and, heaven forefend, become separated from the company of God-fearing Jews. . .

". . . And in this regard, it is also a need associated with a mitzvah, because it is a mitzvah to strengthen the hearts of Israel at this time, and in this regard all are [now] poor, and man does not live by bread alone, and we all know that the descendants of our people are diminished in their pain and it is a mitzvah to strengthen the hearts of Israel, to comfort them, and to awaken in them a spirit of hope and fortitude . . . and we should also fear that if we do not permit this, they will be compelled to attend the synagogues of the liberals where they will hear the flawed and misleading sermons of their preachers, and certainly it is a need associated with a mitzvah like [offering] food to the needy and all such needs of a mitzvah are allowed in the synagogue, even if [the activity] is not a complete, mandated mitzvah itself." (S'ridei Esh 1:16, Mossad ha-Rav Kook, Jerusalem, 1961. The translation from the Hebrew is mine.)

Beyond the S'ridei Esh's disdain of Reform Judaism and concern with its potential influence, this responsum attests to the struggle to address Jews' spiritual needs at a moment of unprecedented crisis in Jewish life, and the reluctance to open the Orthodox synagogue to any activity that is not strictly Jewish. We may take pride in Reform temples, and their ability to offer sustenance and support to Jews in that low point of European history. It is our heritage and strength.

Dr. Jonathan Cohen, associate professor of Talmud and Halachic Literature, was appointed dean of the Cincinnati campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) on September 1, 2011. He has served as the Director of the HUC-UC Ethics Center since January 2001.

You Only Need to Ask

Daver Acher By: Jeffrey Gale

Many years ago, I enjoyed a Shabbat dinner with an observant family living in Jerusalem. During the meal, there was a toddler sitting in a high chair who was constantly asking for pieces of chicken. As is the custom with toddlers, every time his request was granted, he would throw his food on the floor. I remarked to this father, an ordained rabbi, that his son was more interested in asking for the chicken then in receiving it. His father astutely replied: "The ability to ask without necessarily receiving is a central Jewish principal!" Indeed, one of the major prerequisites to Jewish living is that no one is self-sufficient and able to satisfy his or her needs without help.

This anecdote sheds light on Parashat Eikev. Deuteronomy 8:12-14 warns that when we have eaten and are full and have built goodly houses, and when we are living in relative comfort, we should not be lulled into a false sense of self-sufficiency and forget God who gave us the ability to acquire a decent standard of living.

Indeed, arrogance and the misguided belief that human beings are totally self-sufficient are the essence of ungodliness. Immodest people have no sense of awe. Immodest people are rarely grateful. Religious living is having the ability to ask God for assistance, whether or not we actually get what we want. Religious living is being perpetually grateful for what we have and always able to say "thank you" to God and to our neighbors.

The toddler got it right. He had the capacity to ask without being overly concerned with what he receives in the end. The ability to humbly admit that we need God, as well as other people, to supplement our personal resources; the ability to express gratitude; the fervent desire not to take God or any of our fellow human beings for granted; and the willingness to elevate the challenges of daily survival to a higher spiritual plain and to remember before whom we stand is what true religion is all about. In the words of the Torah portion, "Man does not live by bread alone, but by everything from the mouth of God does a man live" (Deuteronomy 8:3).

  1. An alternate translation of Deuteronomy 8:3 is: "a human being does not live on bread alone, but that one may live on anything that the Eternal decrees." See The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Edition, W. Gunther Plaut, gen. ed. (New York: URJ Press, 2005), p. 1,230

Rabbi Jeffrey Gale is the rabbi at Hebrew Tabernacle Congregation in New York, NY.

Reference Materials

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

Originally published: