Parshat Ekev: Reinventing the Covenant – Judgment, Mercy, and Second Chances
Tamar Beer studied at Midreshet Lindenbaum from 2016 -2018. She is currently enrolled at GPATS (Graduate Program for Advanced Talmudic Studies) and Azrieli Graduate School for Education, and directs a summer women’s beit midrash program called Bnot Sinai.
The concept of “shmartem et hamitzvot” – observing or safeguarding the commandments – appears many times throughout Parshat Eikev. However, the reasons for safeguarding the mitzvot vary throughout its numerous mentions. Moshe gives a speech to Bnei Yisrael in order to instruct them and lift their spirits before entering the land of Israel. What is the role of advising Bnei Yisrael to “observe the mitzvot” so many times?
In the opening of the parsha, Bnei Yisrael is told: “u’shmartem v’asitem et habrit v’hachesed asher nishba lavotecha”– that Bnei Yisrael should safeguard and perform the covenant and the kindness that HaShem swore to your forefathers (7:12). Here, the safeguarding of the covenant – acting in the ways that God commands – is portrayed as a sense of basic reciprocity. HaShem entered a covenant with our forefathers promising them the land of Israel, provided they hold up their end of the deal by acting properly and following in His ways. It therefore follows that the next instance where Bnei Yisrael is instructed to follow the mitzvot is “l’maan tichiyun u’rivitem u’vatem vyirashem et ha’aretz asher nishba Hashem la’avotechem”– in order that you shall live, and be many, and come and inherit the land that HaShem swore to your forefathers (8:1). Here, Moshe is reminding the nation that although HaShem promised their forefathers to make them into a great nation in the land of Israel, it is conditional on Bnei Yisrael doing their part of the covenant by acting in the ways of the mitzvot. In 8:6, Bnei Yisrael is told “v’shmarta et hamitzvot HaShem Elokecha lalechet laderech u’liyirah oto– that we should observe the mitzvot of HaShem in order to walk in His path, and to fear Him. This pasuk sets up observing the mitzvot as the path one must take in order to live a Godly life, and to demonstrate a fear of HaShem and His word.
In these instances of Moshe telling Bnei Yisrael to follow the mitzvot, he is reminding them that our duty to follow the mitzvot is our end of a covenant HaShem set up with our forefathers, in order to achieve peoplehood in the land of Israel. HaShem guaranteed our forefathers that they would become a great nation, however, this promise can only be actualized when we are acting in the manner that God commanded. It therefore is fitting that Moshe instructs the nation to observe and safeguard the mitzvot as part of his speech before entering the land – these are the actions the nation must take in order to be worthy in the next step of their journey: settling in the land of Israel.
However, Moshe seemingly interrupts his chizzuk by recollecting the first and second luchot. This in itself is puzzling, but what is also interesting is that after this interruption, there is a tone shift in reference to the many mentions of “shmartem et hamitzvot”- observing the mitzvot. At this point, the emphasis shifts from following the mitzvot out of national obligation, to the personal effect the mitzvot have on us. We are told to observe the mitzvot “ki tov lach”- because they are good for us – and “lma’an techzeku u’vatem v’yarashtem et ha’arez”- in order to strengthen us to come and inherit the land (10:13, 11:18). We are also told “v’ahavta et hashem elokecha v’sharmtem mishmortav”- that we should love HaShem and keep his mitzvot- which sets up an ideal that observing the mitzvot should flow naturally from a love of God.
The tension between these two types of descriptions of “shmartem et hamitzvot” found in the first and second half of Parshat Eikev, well represents the tension of how one should regard the safeguarding of the mitzvot in his or her own life. On the one hand, following the mitzvot is our most basic way of doing our part in fulfilling our end of the covenant in order to be worthy of living as HaShem’s nation on the land of Israel- it is our duty as the Jewish people. On the other hand, there is a recognition that a sense of national responsibility is not the full reason as to why a person should observe the mitzvot. In order to be properly oriented towards the path of mitzvot, we need to understand and appreciate how the mitzvot are meaningful to our lives. We need to relate to mitzvot not simply as a duty, but as an act we perform out of love of God, and a recognition that mitzvot are here to benefit us and affect us.
It is important to reflect on the luchot in order to transition from the obligation of mitzvot to the love of mitzvot. Obligation reflects a sense of justice – that we should follow the mitzvot and uphold our end of the covenant, but rachamim – mercy, and love – which lie beyond the strict measure of din – are also elements of our relationship to HaShem. The first luchot were founded on “din”- adhering to the letter of the law. They set up expectations for the nation that were not lived up to; instead, Bnei Yisrael sinned with the golden calf. After the luchot were broken, it stands to reason that if the luchot were broken, the covenant they represented between Bnei Yisrael and HaShem should be broken, too.
However, God does not function on justice alone. Because of His love for His people, He also acts in a manner of mercy, allowing us to have second chances we do not deserve, provided that we do teshuva. Therefore, he offers a covenant anew, in the form of the second luchot. The theme of teshuva in the story of the luchot is hinted at by Rashi, who points out that the second luchot were given on Yom Kippur. Furthermore, the pesukim tell us that Hashem said “shnei luchot k’rishonim”– the two luchot were like the first. What does it mean that they were like the first, if the text of the second luchot was different? Perhaps we should learn from this that if we make a mistake, but rectify it afterwards, then our relationship with Hashem will be as good as it was before the wrong deed was done.
The story of the luchot is not here to sadden Bnei Yisrael in reminding them that they sinned with the golden calf. Rather, it is here as a reminder in entering the land, that if Bnei Yisrael sins, they can repair their relationship with HaShem, they can re-establish the covenant. It is important to remember the responsibility to follow the mitzvot and the consequences of one’s own actions, but if mistakes are made and wrong actions are taken, one must bear in mind that God recognizes human frailty, and gives us the opportunity of second chances: the opportunity to do teshuva. After referencing this, the language of Moshe’s chizzuk centers around how one should be personally affected by the mitzvot: loving them and recognizing their benefit – in order for the mitzvot to always be there for her or him to turn back to when they have done wrong.