Parshat Ekev (Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25)
Rabbi David Stav
In analyzing the Book of Deuteronomy (Devarim), it is the generally accepted practice to divide the book into three sections, one for each of Moses’ major speeches. In his first speech, which ends at the beginning of Parshat Va’etchanan, Moses recounts the history of the Israelites’ wanderings in the desert.
In the second speech – which is included in this week’s parasha, Ekev – Moses discusses the commandments, which he continuously exhorts us to uphold. He does not suffice with a passing mention of the commandments, but instead emphasizes why it is so important for the nation to preserve this system. He talks about how the nation was given manna to eat during the years they spent in the desert, and describes how difficult it was for the nation, which had no guarantee that food would be provided. Moreover, not everyone found the manna to their liking! But the manna was meant to “test them, whether or not they will follow My teaching” [Ex. 16:4].
Why was it so important to have this in mind as the people stood at the gateway to the Promised Land? After all, they would no longer be subsisting on manna once they entered the land.
To the contrary – Israel’s colorful landscapes starkly contrast with the desert setting they knew so well. The Torah here contains one of the most beautiful descriptions of the land: “A land of wheat and barley, vines and figs and pomegranates, a land of oil producing olives and honey.” Later, the Torah says that “your herds and your flocks multiply, and your silver and gold increase, and all that you have increases…”
If so, why rehash the realities of desert life? Is that what will motivate the people to keep the commandments in the land?
All societies strive for an economically comfortable and convenient life. We would be hard-pressed to find someone who would reject the opportunity to become wealthy. It is safe to assume that the desert generation, which had been hearing about the dream of reaching the Promised Land for years, would be dreaming of an idyllic life.
Those who had suffered for years in the desert, and who could only dream of a life of peace and quiet, would find it difficult to believe that a prosperous lifestyle could be challenging. We have no trouble understanding that poverty and slim pickings lead to hardships for individuals, and sometimes, for families as well, and in the most extreme circumstances, our faith is tested as we grapple with the question of why some are rich, while others are poor.
Yet it seems as though the problems of the impoverished will vanish once they achieve economic stability, at which point they could rest on their laurels and enjoy life.
This is analogous to a Holocaust survivor who had lived with hunger in concentration camps, and could only dream of the bread he could taste once liberated. Finally, the day for which he had waited so long arrived. Soviet and American soldiers entered the camps with large loaves of bread. The starving survivors devoured the bread within minutes, with tragic results: the survivors’ stomachs could not tolerate the sudden, drastic change, and many died.
Alas, the transition from desert to inhabited terrain is no simple matter. Those who transition between different locations without any preparation could easily fail. In the desert, people knew that they were entirely dependent on God. Without His help, they would have had neither food to eat nor water to drink.
Once in the Promised Land, they might be tempted to believe that they could do everything on their own. Coming face to face with the abundance and the achievements made by the pagan Canaanites, these people might say to themselves that if these other nations could do it, so can we.
This is precisely the pitfall awaiting the generation transitioning from a state of dependence to independence and sovereignty. It is therefore important for Moses to emphasize that the desert and the Promised Land, which was inhabited, had something in common. The God who gave us manna in the desert would also help us be at our best once we live in a settled area.
This parsha seems to be referring to our generation. Israel’s founding generation is akin to the “desert generation” who had suffered terribly in Egypt. The vast majority had a deep Jewish awareness and a profound Zionist identity, and their greatest joy was that they could live in this land in relative security, even if their standard of living was low. Their spiritual nourishment was Zionism and love of the Land of Israel, which, for them, epitomized the verse from our parsha: “… man does not live by bread alone, but rather by whatever comes forth from the mouth of God.”
However, subsequent generations in Israel, including ours, face the danger inherent in a life of relative comfort and abundance. We are reaping the fruits of an economically robust society, which could easily cause us to forget about the hardships of previous generations. For us, simply not being the victim of the Nazis or other oppressors is not enough. We want our lives to be infused with more profound content, which will tie us to God.
This is why it is so important to remind the “generation of plenty” of the time when our sole sustenance came in the form of manna. Just as tens of thousands of employees can lose their jobs after a company’s shares crash, a life of abundance can end at a moment’s notice. By being deeply connected to our value system, we can shape our world, whether we are living through a boom or a bust. This is the essence of our parsha: remembering what is most important and correct, even when living a life of plenty in “a land flowing with milk and honey.”