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On the Heels (Ekev)

And it will be, because [עקב] you will heed these ordinances and keep them and perform, that the Lord, your God, will keep for you the covenant and the kindness that He swore to your forefathers. And He will love you and bless you and multiply you; He will bless the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your soil, your grain, your wine, and your oil, the offspring of your cattle and the choice of your flocks, in the land which He swore to your forefathers to give you. You shall be blessed above all peoples: There will be no sterile male or barren female among you or among your livestock. And the Lord will remove from you all illness, and all of the evil diseases of Egypt which you knew, He will not set upon you, but He will lay them upon all your enemies (Deut. 7:12-15).

The pledge Moshe makes to bnei Yisrael at the start of this week’s parshah strikes us, at first glance, as largely indistinguishable from dozens of similar exhortations Moshe delivers to bnei Yisrael in the final month of his life. Throughout sefer Devarim, Moshe stresses repeatedly the importance of observing Hashem’s commands and of guarding Hashem’s covenant, while highlighting the reward awaiting those that do so.

foot-310736_960_720.pngTurn your attention, however, to the word “ekev,” which appears in the parshah’s first verse, and which doubles up as the title of our parshah as well. “Ekev” (עקב, in Hebrew) literally means “heel.” By extension, “ekev” can also mean “on the heels of”—or, less semantically, “as a result of;” “since;” “because”—and it is this connotation that the term takes in our parshah’s opening verse: “And it will be, because [עקב] you will heed these ordinances and keep them and perform, that the Lord, your God, will keep for you the covenant and the kindness that He swore to your forefathers (Deut. 7:12).” (more…)

Taking a Stand (Chukkat)

water-flowing-over-rocksNear the center of this week’s parshah, bnei Yisrael famously complain over a lack of available drinking water (Num. 20:1-13). Many commentators have discussed the remarkable similarities between this water crisis and an earlier water crisis recorded in sefer Shemot (Exod. 17:1-7). In both incidents, the nation lacks water; in both, they protest that man and beast alike will shortly die of thirst; in both, they question Moshe’s leadership and they regret their decision to leave Egypt; in both, Hashem commands Moshe to draw forth water from a rock, and to take his staff along with him. Moreover, the first crisis occurs when the people arrive at “the wilderness of Sin” [מדבר סין], which is later renamed “Testing and Strife” [מסה ומריבה, i.e. Massa U-Merivah], while the second occurs when the people depart from “the wilderness of Zin” [מדבר צין], which is later renamed “The Waters of Strife” [מי מריבה, i.e. Mei Merivah]. The parallels continue, and they are well documented.

What has not been noted, however, is the similarly compelling set of connections tying together the aftermaths of these two water crises. To that end, consider the following episodes:   (more…)

Sending Signs (Shelach)

In this week’s parshah, Moshe sends spies to scout the land of Israel in advance of bnei Yisrael’s impending entry. These spies return reporting that bnei Yisrael will be unable to conquer the land, throwing the nation into panic and spurring calls to return to the land of Egypt. Hashem counters bnei Yisrael’s lack of faith by decreeing that they will have to spend forty years wandering in the wilderness before they enter the land of Israel. Upon receiving this news, bnei Yisrael immediately regret their decision, and attempt in vein to walk it back: (more…)

Rise and Shine (Pesach)

Every year at our Pesach seders, we recite a list of “ten plagues” which afflicted the Egyptians before they finally freed Bnei Yisrael from slavery. The ninth of these plagues is the plague of “darkness.” Growing up, I harbored a very specific conception of what it must have been like to live through this plague. I imagined Egyptians fumbling about in the darkness, constantly crossing each other’s paths; constantly colliding with each other; constantly confronting each other in a series of unexpected and undesired encounters. (more…)

It Ain’t Over ‘Till it’s Over (Vezot Habracha/Simchat Torah)

Every year, in synagogues across the world, Jews come together on simchas Torah to celebrate the completion of yet another cycle of communal Torah study. After spending the morning singing, dancing, and exchanging l’chaims, we gather around the bimah and culminate the festivities by reading publicly the final verses of the “Five Books of Moshe:” (more…)

The Rock Song (Yom Kippur/Haazinu)

Rabbi Eliezer taught: Repent one day before you die. His students asked him: But does a person know on which day he will die? He replied: All the more reason that he should repent today, lest he die tomorrow; and thus, he shall spend all of his days engaged in repentance (T. Bavli Shabbat 153a).

It was Moshe’s one hundred and twentieth birthday, the day on which he achieved that age which in Jewish tradition is associated with a life lived to its fullest. It was also the day on which Hashem had told him he was to die. He had much to be proud of: cast away by his mother at birth, persecuted by the Pharaoh as a young adult, and still looking to start a family in middle age, he had managed to overcome much adversity in his personal life and emerge as the unlikely savior of a nation whom he had rescued from slavery, taught Hashem’s Torah, and delivered to the border of the land promised to their ancestors centuries ago. (more…)

The Split-Screen Scene (Vaetchanan)

In this week’s Parshah, Moshe—now in his last month of life, and stationed just outside the entrance to Eretz Yisrael—wistfully recalls one of the most disappointing moments of his forty-year leadership career:

I entreated the Lord at that time, saying, “O Lord God, You have begun to show Your servant Your greatness and Your strong hand, for who is [like] God in heaven or on earth who can do as Your deeds and Your might? Pray let me cross over and see the good land that is on the other side of the Jordan, this good mountain and the Lebanon.” But the Lord was angry with me because of you, and He did not listen to me, and the Lord said to me, “It is enough for you; speak to Me no more regarding this matter. Go up to the top of the hill and lift up your eyes westward and northward and southward and eastward and see with your eyes, for you shall not cross this Jordan. But command Joshua and strengthen him and encourage him, for he will cross over before this people, and he will make them inherit the land which you will see. And we abided in the valley opposite Beth Peor (Deut. 3:23-29).