Parshat Ekev: Deuteronomy 78:12-11:25; Isaiah 49:14-51;3.
In this week’s portion, we encounter a shift in the covenantal relationship between God and Israel.
Until this point, this relationship focused on the commandments revealed at Mount Sinai. The commandments were unconditional: “thou shalt” or “thou shalt not.” Prior to this, there is no conditional, “if … then” relationship between God and the People of Israel.
This now changes. In a passage (that happens to be the second paragraph of the Shema) we read: “… if you obey the commandments that I command you today” a series of rewards will ensue, mainly having to do with rain. The Land of Israel relied almost entirely on sufficient annual rainfall for crops to grow and for the area to be habitable. A promise of rain is a promise of life. However, this promise has conditions attached. You get the rain and a good life if you obey the commandments. If not, God will “close up the skies so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce, and you will soon perish.”
This shift from a covenant to a contractual arrangement reflects the maturing of the people. The men and women of this generation had experienced little or no autonomy and rarely made important decisions for themselves. They lived under the harsh rule of Egyptian task masters and then under the sheltering Divine aegis that took care of even their most elemental needs. They were no longer slaves, but wandering in the desert prevented them from being free-thinking people. Much like a child moves unselfconsciously through a daily routine according to the instructions of parents and teachers, they unreflectively followed a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.
The task of conquering the Land of Canaan, however, demanded more human initiative and agency. This was no task for “children.” Moses reiterated the commandments as one instructs adults, placing a much larger premium on human action, decision and initiative.
Adin Steinsaltz analogized the difference between life in the desert and life in the Land of Israel to life in the diaspora yeshiva world and life in the modern State of Israel. The former provided students’ daily necessities in a world that was largely homogenous, unchanging and sheltered. This, Steinsaltz argued, complicated efforts to transplant the yeshiva world of galut to the very different world of Israeli society, a dissonance that every Israeli government has had to confront and the current government will have to confront now.
This dissonance is not just a clash between religious and secular, rather between the two different and, at times, inherently conflicting mentalities: the mentality of the desert and the mentality of building a life in Eretz Yisrael.
Dr. Howard N. Lupovitch is director of WSU’s Cohn-Haddow Center for Judaic Studies.