Parshat Ekev (Deuteronomy 7:12–11:25)
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
Efrat, Israel – “And now Israel what does the Lord Your G-d ask of you, only to revere the Lord your G-d and to walk in all of His ways, and to love Him and to serve the Lord your G-d with all your heart and with all your soul. To observe the commandments of the Lord and His statutes for your good…” (Deuteronomy 10:11-13)
Is that all? In the words of the Sages of the Talmud, “And is that such a small matter to accomplish?” (B.T. Berakhot 33b) How can the Torah express such a difficult request in such an offhand manner?
A significant experience at the beginning of my teaching career intensifies the question. Almost four decades ago, when teaching Talmud, at the James Striar School of Yeshiva University for those without previous Yeshiva background, the star of the class was a brilliant young man from Montreal who progressed from barely being able to read the words in Aramaic to real proficiency in analyzing a difficult Tosafot (super-commentary). At the end of the year, he decided to leave both Yeshiva University as well his newly found Torah observance!
His explanation has remained imprinted in my consciousness all these years: “As a non-religious Jew, I would get up each morning asking myself how I wished to spend the day; as a religious Jew, I must get up each morning asking myself how G-d wants me to spend the day. The pressure is simply too intense for me to take…”
I was sorely disappointed – but I did understand his tension. Indeed, “he got it”. He understood that true religious devotion is more than praying at certain times each day and subscribing to specific do’s and don’ts; true religious devotion means dedicating every moment to a higher ideal, to answering a Divine call whose message you can never be certain that you correctly discern. Although it may very well be fulfilling it is also difficult and even pressurizing, to be a sincerely religious Jew. So how can the Bible query “What does the Lord your G-d ask of you but only … to love Him and serve… (Him) with all your heart and with all your soul?” But only?! And how can it be ”for your good,” Letov lakh?
This question may be linked to a curious comparison made by the text of our Torah reading between the land of Egypt and the land of Israel – within the context of a lyrical exposition of the grandeur of the Holy Land and the luscious quality of its fruit: “For the land which you are coming to inherit is not like the land of Egypt which you left, where you (merely) seeded your seed and watered with your feet a garden of vegetation (the water came naturally from the overflow of the Nile River); the land which you are crossing there to inherit is a land of mountains and valleys, (making you dependent upon) heavenly rains to drink water; it is a land which the Lord your G-d constantly investigates, the eyes of the Lord your G-d being upon it from the beginning of the year until end-year” (Deuteronomy 11:10,11). Is then the fact that Israel does not have a ready and plentiful source of water as has Egypt, that the land of Israel is dependent upon the rains of Divine grace which come as a result of the Jewish people’s moral and ethical standing, that agricultural activity is a much more arduous and precarious a task than it is in Egypt, a reason for praising Israel? It seems to me that Egypt is a far better option if we were to be given the choice!
It is fascinating to note that both of the issues we have raised thus far, the Torah, which is the source of our responsibilities towards G-d, and the land of Israel, which is the medium through which our nation will flourish and impart the message of ethical monotheism to the world, are both uniquely called morasha or heritage, by the Bible (Exodus 6:8, Deuteronomy 33:4). Yerusha is the usual term for inheritance; morasha is translated as heritage. The Jerusalem Talmud explains that an inheritance is often received through no expenditure of effort on the part of the recipient; a morasha, on the other hand, implies intense exertion, physical and/or emotional input, commitment and even sacrifice on the part of the recipient.
The verb form of morasha, l’horish, also means to conquer, and conquest implies struggle and even sacrifice. At the same time, the basic verb form around which morasha is built is vavresh shin, almost the very same letters as shin, yud, resh(yud and vav are virtually interchangeable in Hebrew) which spells shir or song. And the Midrashic Sages already noted the linguistic comparison between morasha and m’orasa, fiancee or beloved.
All of this leads us to one inescapable conclusion: those objects, ideals and people for which we have labored intensively and sacrificed unsparingly are the very one we love the most and value above all others. The Mishnah in Avot teaches, “In accordance with the pain is the reward;” my teacher and mentor Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik teaches, “In accordance with the pain is the sanctity;” we learn from the word morasha that “in accordance with the pain is the love.” Note the experiences which in retrospect give the most satisfaction and which everyone loves to recount are rarely the days of lazy relaxation we spend on vacation, but more usually the sacrifices during periods of poverty or the battles in time of war. Ask any parent about the special love he/she has for the one child who needed the most care and commitment because of a serious illness or accident and you immediately understand the inextricable connection between conquest and song, commitment and love, intensive effort and emotional gratification. A life without ideals or people for whom one would gladly sacrifice is a life not worth living; a life devoid of emotional commitments is a life which has merely passed one by but which has never been truly lived.
Erich Siegel was wrong when he said that “to love means never to have to say I’m sorry”; but it is correct to say that one who is loved need not say thank-you to the one who has sacrificed, expended effort, on his/her behalf. Jacobs’s fourteen years of hard work for Rachel were”as only a few days” because of his great love for her, attests the Bible. A husband who has the privilege of easing the pain of his beloved wife, if but for a few moments, is grateful for the privilege. And our commitment to G-d – with all our heart, soul and might- is a small thing to ask as long as it is an expression of our mutual love. In the final analysis, it is certainly for our good, because it gives ultimate meaning, purpose and eternity to our finite lives.