Ekev: Longer Reflections
Road Map (2007)
Ekev: Short Reflections
Protective Mitzvot (5773/2013)
If, then, you faithfully keep all this instruction that I command you, loving the LORD your God, walking in all God’s ways and holding fast to God… (Deut. 11:22)
Torah explains what will happen to the entire Israelite people if we keep the mitzvot. But what will happen to each of us, as individuals? Here’s a suggested answer, from a very Jewish midrash found in the New Testament.
Two men went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:10-14)
Set aside, for a moment, any worries that the “Pharisee” is parodied relative to the tax collector. Both are named with pejorative terms; both stand apart; both pray genuinely. Luke’s editorial about their relative spiritual status, left out here, was likely not part of the original parable.
Notice, instead, the prayers. The Pharisee thanks God for the structure of mitzvot; they create conscience and protect him from troubles that beset his peers. The tax collector lacks this inner support system. Feeling lost, he asks to be held in God’s loving compassion.
Assuming the prayers are based on correct spiritual assumptions: If we follow the mitzvot, we will be protected — not from God’s wrath, because God responds to our human failures with compassion – but in immediate practical and psychological ways.
God’s Unconditional Love (5772/2012)
From Tisha B’Av to Rosh Hashanah, we receive a special gift of readings from the prophets. Each week, the Haftorah emphasizes themes of nichum, comfort, and teshuvah, return to relationship with God.
This week’s gift comes from the Prophet Isaiah’s words urging Jews to return from spiritual exile and embrace a return to Jerusalem, c. 535 BCE. Isaiah expresses his powerful experience of God’s Presence using the metaphor of unconditional love between mother and child.
Isaiah first imagines his audience as a bereaved child. Speaking on behalf of God, he says, “People of Jerusalem: Can a mother forget her children? Perhaps some mothers do under stress. But I could never forget you.” Next, Isaiah imagines his audience as a bereaved parent, saying, “Jerusalem, your children will come back to you, and fill your life with beauty.”
In his original historical context, Isaiah hopes literally to encourage Jews who have made a life in Babylonia to return to Jerusalem. “The city needs you!” he says, “You have the power to revitalize it!”
In the context of preparing for Rosh Hashanah, Isaiah’s words invite us to search our inner experience for a spiritual grounding. Find, in yourself, a memory of unconditional love, a trace of a time when you felt that someone held you precious just as you are. Understand this trace as an experience of the Presence of God. Know that you can return to this love, and in its security be empowered to examine and repair yourself.
A Complete Spiritual Practice (2010/5770)
“And now, O Israel! What does the Lord your God require of you but to venerate the Lord your God, to walk in all God’s ways, and to love God, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul. ” (Devarim-Deuteronomy 10:12-13)
Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, nineteenth century Reform Rabbi who helped found Hebrew Union College, says that this verse teaches a complete spiritual practice. Look at the wonders of nature. Study science. Read the Torah. Read history. Learn about human mistakes and victories, and see how history rests not in our hands but in God’s hands. Study philosophy and ask the deep questions about WHY miracles happen. Engage in rituals that lift the spirit.
Simply living in this world gives us the lab we need in order to be in awe of God – as long as we understand that religious learning uses every dimension of our being. Remember, says Rabbi Wise, to learn “with all your heart, and all your soul, with all your feelings, and with all your reason.”