The importance of human experience

Thoughts on parashat Ekev

Menachem Mirski

This week’s Torah portion includes a beautiful vision of the Promised Land, spoken through the mouth of Moses on the eve of its conquest:

For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with streams and springs and fountains issuing from plain and hill; a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey; a land where you may eat food without stint, where you will lack nothing; a land whose rocks are iron and from whose hills you can mine copper. When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to the LORD your God for the good land which He has given you. (Deuteronomy 8:7-10)

Rabbinic minds developed this vision of Eretz Israel by exceedingly idealizing the Promised Land. For example, Rabbeinu Bachya believed that the land of Israel, as well as Jerusalem itself in particular, contained all six climates of the world, which rendered the land’s climate as marvelous. Gaon of Vilna believed that the land of Israel contained all possible minerals and all the plants people needed, so there was no need to import anything. The rabbis, however, idealized the land of Israel even more. The nineteenth-century rabbi of Bratislava, Moses Schreiber, in his work Chatam Sofer wrote that fruits of Eretz Israel were tremendously large, as, for example, wheat grains the size of ox kidneys and lentils the size of gold dinars. Rabbi Shlomo Efraim Luntschitz, who lived at the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries, in his work Kli Yakar claimed that Eretz Israel does not need storage cities; it always has abundance, and there is no need to save from one year to another – its crop is blessed every year, without a break.  Other 19th and 20th-century commentators, such as Jehuda Arie Leib Alter and Shabbatai HaKohen, have argued, for example, that bread made from grains of the Land of Israel has miraculous properties: it can be eaten in infinite amounts, without fear of gaining weight.

There was a disagreement regarding whether the streams and fountains could itself provide enough water for irrigation of fields. 13th century French commentator, Hezekiah ben Manoah, known as Chizkuni, believed that the abundance of water in these streams and fountains depend on rainfall, thus each individual will have to trust in God’s grace for his water. Nachmanides, however, saw a natural blessing in them and that they carry enough moisture to every place it is needed, therefore the land needed no rivers, nor a specific ‘water engineering’.

The first Zionists emigrating to Eretz Israel in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries found out how true all these visions were. These visions do not correspond to reality even today: yes, Israel is a very developed country, abundant in various goods, but all this is the result of hard work of many generations. These rabbinical visions actually teach us how important human experience is when it comes to knowing and judging reality, and how easy it is to make a mistake when one does not have such an experience. These commentators have spent their entire lives in a different world, in Europe, only fantasizing about the Promised Land. The same is often true today, due to instant access to information on everything that is happening anywhere in the world: people are constantly tempted to form and express themselves their opinions about places and countries, having in fact no idea about the reality of these places. Let it be a lesson of restraint for us; let us be restrained in our words, concepts and recipes for the life of human communities who live in other countries and on different continents.


Shabbat shalom!

Menachem Mirski- student rabinacki w Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University, Los Angeles, USA.
Menachem Mirski is a Polish born philosopher, musician, scholar and international speaker. He earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy and is currently studying to become a Rabbi at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. His current area of interests focus on freedom of expression and thought as well as the laws of logic as it pertains to the discourse of ideology and social and political issues. Dr. Mirski has been a leader in Polish klezmer music scene for well over a decade and his LA based band is called Waking Jericho.




Rabbi Dr. Walter Rothschild

There are two sides to every piece of Torah; There is what is said, and there is what is not said. To this must be added the context in which something is said and the concern about what COULD have been said instead and then, of course, there are also our own individual and communal reactions to what is said and how we relate to it, whether and how we accept it or understand it. Can we accept a passage as somehow the Word of the Living God? If so, what should this mean for our own behaviour – total obedience? Fundamentalist acceptance, uncritical belief? Complete gratitude and satisfaction at fulfilling the commands? Or – if we cannot – how do we cope with the presence of something jarring, something unpleasing, something problematical in our Torah?

The context in which our sidra ’Ekev’ belongs is one of great joy and relief. Chapter 7 of Devarim begins with a statement that God is (at last!) about to bring the people to the land currently inhabited by the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites – the 'Seven Nations’ – and that God will help them – that means us! – defeat these people.  Defeat means just that – a  total victory over them – and one accompanied by a form of what 20th-century politicians euphemistically termed 'ethnic cleansing’ and total cultural subjugation, for otherwise there remains a latent risk that the influence of these peoples will continue even through marriage with their surviving daughters. Should this occur – God would get angry. So to be safe we must destroy their holy places, their altars, their pillars, the places where they come to worship. (It’s all there in verse 5). In this way – and only in this way – do we become a 'holy people’, a 'chosen people’, a people in a close relationship to God who will place demands upon us, uncomfortable demands, not all 'sweetness and light’. This is God’s love for us and, to be honest, a modern psychologist would class this as a form of abusive love, of controlling love, of – dare one say it? – narcissistic love. God wants to be Loved but God alone will decide what this means and what forms it may take and anything else will not count. God will love those who obey and will severely punish any who do not – since anyone who does not 'love’ unconditionally will be classed as one who 'hates’. As in the old principle, ”Whoever is not for us, is against us.”

I have to say, there are many concepts of God within Judaism but this is, for me, one of the less-attractive ones. Our sidra then begins with words of coaxing and beseeching:

Because you listen to these mitzvot and keep them and do them, God will keep the covenant with you with the steadfast love God swore to your ancestors… God will love you, bless you, multiply you…   God will increase the fruit of your body and the fruit of your ground… ” and so forth. God will help you wipe out the other kings so effectively that their very names will be forgotten.  You should remember all these commands because – well, because God tells you to. There is no other reason required. Look at chapter 8 verse 2 – ”You shall remember all the way which the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, …testing you, to know what was in your heart…” It was a long test and it seemed the result was uncertain up to the bitter end of that period. There remains constantly the risk of forgetting (verse 11) or of giving oneself rather than God the credit for all the achievements (verse 17) and so on.

And this warning, against complacency, against self-satisfaction, is repeated several times for emphasis. It was God who gave the Commandments and it is God who will check to ensure that they are being kept. It sometimes seems rather mechanistic. There are forms of Judaism which still work this way – you must push the right lever, perform the right ritual, and then you will get the response you want. Put on tefillin, they say, light the 'Shobbos’ candles and, lo and behold, the Moshiach, the Messiah will come!

But that is not the way of Liberal Judaism which demands of us study and thought, which requires us to use our own moral compass and our own informed conscience. The problem with the image I have described so far is that it describes God almost as someone playing a game of chess, moving tribes and peoples around, moving this piece from here to there, and either taking and removing an opposing piece from the board, or even sacrificing one of his own as part of a Plan we do not understand. This view of God would have been familiar to many ancient peoples who, perhaps substituting the plural 'gods’ for the single God, would understand what was happening around them – whether in terms of battle outcomes or natural catastrophes – as merely the result of the gods on Mount Olympus or wherever playing their games, games of childish and  selfish rivalry in which morality had no part to play. We, however – like Abraham arguing with God before the destruction of Sodom, challenging God to allow for the possibility of there being good people there as well – would have to think: 'What if some of these Hivites and Jebusites were actually nice people, who did not deserve to share the fate laid down for their nations? Why should we let ourselves be led – or misled – into clinging to stereotypes, into thinking of people as being all the same, whether 'the Poles’ or 'the Germans’ or 'the Arabs’ or even 'the Jews’? This is lazy thinking, the application of an assumed group mentality to define all the individuals within it, whatever their age, gender, status, intelligence quotient or any other factor.

But – we all do it! We may be embarrassed to admit it (and we should be!) but the most frequently-used term to describe any other group of people is simply 'Them’. 'Them’ and 'They’ are, by definition, not like 'Us’ or 'We’ and since 'We’ are good then – by definition – 'They’ are different and hence they are not good….  It is a dreadful moral quandary, reinforced here by this text.

We encounter this phenomenon all the time – even using the word 'We’ here is of course taking a bit of a risk, for how can I know what each hearer, each reader of what I write here has really experienced? –  but we Jews have experienced being at the other end of this equation many times, being treated as 'the Other’, the 'Them’ many times, by other peoples who felt they had the right to drive us out or massacre us as a consequence. Just like the Hivites and the Perizzites must have felt. I still hear so frequently terms such as 'The Germans and the Jews’ or 'The Poles and the Jews’. Of course there are different common denominators within each ethnic or cultural element of society but – is it really safe, really sensible, really fair to think in such a manner? Or – whatever we might think – to ACT in such a manner? This is where the celebration of legitimate and valid cultural differences and distinctions can drift into forms of racism and elitism and superior triumphalism.

This is a part of being human, of course, and nothing new, nothing restricted just to us. For centuries as Jews we had no real choice but to submit to being treated in this way and now, that there is once again a land administered by Jews, a State with its own laws and government, comes the question of what that means when dealing with other minorities. Whereby one must note that the term 'other minorities’ also includes other Jews – those who belong to other groups, other parties, other lands of origin and so forth.

Our text tells us that God was testing the Israelites while they were in the desert, to see how they would behave under different circumstances; However, one could also say that the real test would begin once they entered the land! When it comes to issues of Morality, whether individual or communal or national, the testing never stops…………..


Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Dr. Walter Rothschild.