Thursday, August 18, 2022

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Ekev - Dvarim (Deuteronomy) 7:12–11:25

“And it shall be, because you hear these judgments, and keep and do them, even YHVH your Elohim will keep with you the covenant and the mercy which He swore to your fathers” (italics added)), is the opening verse of Parashat Ekev. “Because” (here) is “ekev”, from the root a.k.v (ayin, kof, bet/vet) the primary meaning of which is “heel”. In other words, taking the right step (of hearing and obeying) will result in the desired consequences. Our forefather Ya’acov was so named because he was born holding his twin brother’s heel (Gen. 25:26).  He literally came in the footsteps of his brother, and thus his name, which means to “follow”, perfectly matched the birth condition. His, however, was not the kind of following of the faithful disciple, who walks in the footsteps of his master. The image of ‘heel-holding’ or ‘heel grabbing’ refers to hindering or trapping someone, such as we see in the following examples: “Dan shall be a serpent... that bites the horse’s heels” (Gen. 49:17 italics added); “The trap shall take him by the heel” (Job 18:9 italics added); “They mark my steps [heels]” (Ps. 56:6).  In the following words of Psalm 41:9, we find an allusion to Messiah’s destiny: “My own familiar friend... which did eat of my bread has lifted his heel against me” (italics added).  This type of follower steals quietly behind the one he follows with a crafty intent (as was the case with Messiah’s “familiar friend”). Indeed, from the same root of “heel” and “follow” (a.k.v.), stem words like “crafty, cunning, and deceptive”, as we see, for instance, in Yirmiyahu (Jeramiah) 9:4: “... surely every brother deals craftily [akov ya’akov]” (italics added).  When Esav (Esau) was startled by his younger brother’s cunning, in B’resheet (Genesis) 27:34, 36, “he cried out with an exceedingly great and bitter cry: ‘… Is he not rightly named, Ya’acov? For he has supplanted (“akav”) me...?’” (italics added).  The prophet Hoshe’a (Hosea), many centuries later, traces the waywardness of the nation of Yisrael (who in this prophecy is called “Ya’acov”) to their progenitor: “In the womb he took his brother by the heel” (Hos. 12:3, italics added).  In the wake of this ‘birth mark’ of crookedness, Ya’acov (the man and the nation) remained true to his (and their) nature, as is even evidenced here, where YHVH makes it perfectly clear: “It is not for your righteousness or for the uprightness [yosher – lit. ‘straightness’] of your heart that you are going to possess their land…” (9:5).  


“In the wake of” or “as a result of” - in short “because” - is “ekev”, such as is employed in our Parasha. Quite often YHVH declares: “And in your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because (ekev) you have obeyed my voice" (Gen. 22:18 italics added). David answered the prophet Na’tan (Nathan), who told him a parable following his sin with Bat-Sheva (Bathsheba) and said: “He must make restitution for the lamb, because [ekev] he did this thing and had no compassion” (2nd Sam.12:6 italics added). Thus, this little “ekev” - “because” - becomes the fulcrum on which the balance of justice depends, much like the heel in the physical body. And just as this section of the Parasha started with, “And it shall be, because [EKEV] you hear these judgments, and keep and do them…” it also ends with: “So you shall perish; because [EKEV] you would not listen to the voice of YHVH your Elohim…” (Deut. 8:20).


Parashat Ekev features two major themes, which alternate throughout: the physical conditions of the Land and the connectedness of these conditions to the people’s obedience to YHVH. The second of these themes is in the form of reflections on Yisrael’s rebelliousness during their wilderness journey. The recounting of the latter is for the purpose of illustrating sin and rebellion and issuing warnings in face of the new circumstances that Yisrael is about to face.


In 7:12-13, “keeping the judgments”, as we saw above, guarantees a promise of love, blessing, and multiplication, a promise which is built into the two-sided covenant (the other side being the curse incurred by disobedience to the “judgments”, as we shall see next week).  “Covenant” is “b’reet”, of the root b.r.t (bet, resh, tav), forming the verb “barot”, with its primary meaning being to “separate out the parts” [1], thus rendering the covenant as a special agreement with a special and set apart people. “Blessings” – “bracha” is primarily “growth or unhindered prosperity”. Its root, (bet, resh, kaf), is also the root for “berech”, which is “knee”.  This all-important word, to “bless” or “blessing", is surprisingly not attached to the imagery of a more regal hand-stretching gesture, or to the mouth which is also an instrument of blessing, but rather to the humble action of kneeling.  Neither is there a special word assigned to Elohim's blessings (so as to distinguish it from blessings conferred by men).


The words uttered in 7:12, and 13 are echoed in 8:13: “And your herds and your flocks will multiply, and your silver and your gold will have multiplied [root of “rav”], and all that you have is multiplied [“rav”]…” Moreover, the land YHVH promises to Yisrael is a land “in which you shall eat bread without poverty – miskenot” (8:9). “Misken” (of the same root,, samech, kaf/chaf, noon) is a “poor person, one to be pitied (e.g. Ecc. 9:15, 16). Shmot (Exodus) 1:11 tells us that the storage cities that Yisrael built for Par’oh were “arey miskenot”.  Ironically, the Hebrews themselves were very “miskenim” (plural for miserable) when they built those “miskenot” cities.  Now, not only will they be free from poverty and want, but they will also not have to labor for someone else.  In fact, last week we read in 6:10, 11 about their future dwelling places: “…to give to you great and good cities, which you have not built, and houses full of every good thing which you have not filled…” There will be so much provision that they will not even need to erect for themselves “arey miskenot”, cities of storage, as storing up for the future will not be called for.  However, this plenty will require “watchfulness” lest they forget YHVH (ref. 8:11), who “took you out of Egypt… who led you through the wilderness”, and “who fed you” (ref. vs. 14, 15, 16).  There is always the danger of saying in one’s heart: “My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth” (v. 17), while it is YHVH “who gives to you power to get wealth” (v. 18). Wealth is a translation of “cha’yil”. Remember “not by might, not by power…” in Z’chariah 4:6? There “cha’yil” is translated as “might” while “power” is “ko’ach”.  Thus, it is only YHVH’s might – cha’yil - which is able to grant all this wealth. It is therefore paramount that you should “remember YHVH your Elohim, for He gives to you power – “ko’ach” - to “do well”, in this case implying wealth – “chayil” (Deut. 8:18).


The above exhortation stresses remembering YHVH, as forgetfulness will lead to idolatry which, in turn, will bring about destruction (ref. 8:19, 20). The wilderness, therefore, was to serve as a place of refinement, humbling, and trial (ref. 8:2, 3, 16) in order to obviate just this kind of outcome.  Some of the blessings (in 7:13) will entail “the increase of your oxen and the wealth of your flock”.  Here “increase” is “sh’gar”- “cast or throw” in Aramaic, hence “that which comes forth from the womb”. [2] “Oxen” in this context is “alafim”, which also means “thousands” (“elef” singular).  We already encountered this term in Parashat Chayey Sarah (in Gen. 24:60) where we found that its root, a.l.f, is also shared with “aluf” which means “prince or chief” and with “alef”, the name of the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The prominence of “alef” makes it, by implication, also of great numerical value – hence “elef” - a “thousand”.  Thus, the oxen mentioned here allude to great wealth. The “wealth of the flock” is the rare “a’shtarot” (used in this way only in Dvarim) of the root (ayin, shin, resh), related to “osher” – “wealth” and to “eser”, which is the figure “ten” (as well as being  connected to Ashtaroth, the goddess of fertility).


In Shmot (Exodus) 23:27, 28 (in Parashat Mishpatim), we read the following promise: “…and I will confound all the people among whom you come. And I will give the neck of your enemies to you. And I will send hornets before you which shall drive out the Hivite, the Canaanite, and the Hittite before you” (italics added). Here, in 7:20 we read again: “And YHVH your Elohim shall send the hornets among them, until the ones who are left perish, even those who hide themselves from your face” (italics added), and again in verse 23: “And YHVH your Elohim shall…. confuse them into great confusion until they are destroyed” (literal translation). Both “confound” in Shmot 23:28 and “confusion” here in 7:23 are of the root h.m.m (hey, mem, mem) meaning to “make noise, confuse or discomfort” (and is an onomatopoeic word, just like the English “hum”). This, then, in not only a promise for the future; but is also a glimpse into the past recalling that YHVH had “confused – “va’yaham” - the camp of the Egyptians” (Ex. 14:24), during Yisrael’s exodus out of the “house of bondage”.


In this first part of the Parasha, included in the promises that will result in obedience, there are several echoes of Parashat Sh'lach Lecha (Bamidbar 13:1-15:41), that relate to the spies' report. In their account, ten of the spies announced that the land "devours – literally eats – its inhabitants" and what's more, there are "giants [there], the descendants of Anak…" (13:33). In response (in 14:9) Yehoshua and Calev chided the complaining Israelites who believed this report, by declaring that "the people of the land are our bread…". This idea is now picked up In Dvarim 7:16, where YHVH promises to Yisrael, that they will, literally, "eat all the peoples whom YHVH your Elohim is giving you". Moreover, the "descendants of Anak" will be consumed by Him (ref. 9:2-4).


In spite of all the material wealth and the increase promised at the beginning of the Parasha, and later in 8:7-10, sandwiched in between these two passages, in 8:3, is the following passage: “And He has humbled you, and caused you to hunger, and caused you to eat the manna, which you had not known, and your fathers had not known, in order to cause you to know that man shall not live by bread alone, but man shall live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of YHVH” (italics added). All material goods, whether plentifully or scantily supplied, are the outcome of a “word that proceeds from the mouth of YHVH”.  One way or another He ‘calls the shots’.  Moreover, it is not these provisions, again whether in great or small quantities, which determine life or the quality thereof but “every word that proceeds from the mouth of YHVH”.  When Yeshua cited this very scripture, in a situation somewhat similar to that of Yisrael, which like Him was tried (according to 8:2, 3, 16) in the wilderness, He passed the test and overcame his trial (Mat. 4:4; Luke 4:4).


The word “bread” - “lechem” - is many times translated as “food”, as indeed it is a generic term for man’s sustenance. The root of “lechem” is (lamed, chet, mem), with the last two consonants - ch.m - making up the word “cha-m,” meaning “hot” or “warm”.  Only by baking the dough in a hot oven will it turn into the desired edible substance.  Hence, heat, energy, and effort are all part of the bread-making process. Another noun that shares the root is “milchama”, which is “war”, as does the verb tofight, or struggle for one’s existence or survival” – “lachom”.  The closeness of these two terms is well illustrated by two verses in Mishley (Proverbs) 23. Verse 1 says: “When you sit down to eat with a ruler, look carefully at what is before you”.  The Hebrew for “eat” reads here “lilchom”, which literally means “to fight”, but because of’s dual meaning it is possible to read the verb as “eat” or more literally “to partake of bread”.  Verse 6 of the same chapter says: “Do not eat the bread of one who has an evil eye, and do not desire his delicacies”. Here “eat” is “tilcham”, which again could be read as “fight”.  We may infer, therefore, that if man were to live solely by the bread of his own making (or imagine that he does), he would have to fight and strive for it. Thus, once again, we turn to Zechariah 4:6 “not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit, says YHVH of Hosts”, which proves to be very applicable.


The circumstances awaiting the Israelites in the land will differ vastly from those prevailing in the desert. Yet just as until now every detail pertaining to their lives and needs was determined by “every word proceeding out of the mouth of YHVH”, so will it continue to be the case in their new home. But for this principle to stay afloat, the people must keep and guard His every word and live accordingly. The 8:7-10 passage is regarded “as the classic description of the fertility and other wonderful qualities of the holy land. But we must not ignore its other implication. The Torah sings the praises of the land to emphasize too the moral dangers and pitfalls that such gifts might bring with them. Although the life of the Israelites in the Promised Land would no longer be dependent on water being extracted from the rock or on manna dropping from heaven, nevertheless even the normal rainfall and all the natural gifts of the land were similarly derived from the Creator and not in virtue of their own power and might of their hand”.[3]


Chapter 9 continues to center on YHVH’s promises of “consuming the enemies” in the land, and also recounts Yisrael’s golden calf rebellion and the need that arose then to inscribe anew the two tablets of the Torah.  It opens with the famous words: “Hear oh Yisrael…” implying that Yisrael is to hear and obey, as “hearing the voice…” is a Hebrew idiom for obeying, which is evident from the previous verse (the last one in chapter 8): “…You shall perish; because [EKEV] you did not listen to the voice of YHVH your Elohim” (8:20, emphasis added). In 9:6, 13 references are made to Yisrael’s “stiff neck”, or literally “hard nape”. Having a “stiff neck” implies a literal inflexibility, which does not allow one to turn one’s face (panim - “face” - from the root p.n.h which is also the root for the verb “turn”, while “pina” is “corner”).  Thus, the proverbial stiffness of the neck speaks of a head that is facing in one direction only, and of a person who is headstrong and unable to turn (from his old ways).  We have already noted in the past that “panim” - “face” - stemming from the verb “to turn”, exposes the essential nature of YHVH’s approach toward us, and that is His relational nature to which we are to respond. Yisrael’s “stiffness” and “hardness” of neck and uncircumcised heart are addressed in the following: “And you shall circumcise the foreskin of your heart, and you shall not harden your neck anymore” (10:16).  “Such an exhortation is made to bring men to a sense of their need of it [that is, of the exhortation], and of the importance of it, and to show how agreeable it is to the Lord, and so to stir them up to seek unto him for it”. [4] In chapter 30:6 there is a promise that YHVH will circumcise their heart, so that they may love Him, thus laying the foundations for the new covenant of the heart, in the course of which the latter becomes the ‘parchment’ on which the Torah is inscribed (ref. Jer. 31:33).

The Parasha ends with another look at the land - “a land which YHVH your Elohim cares for; the eyes of YHVH your Elohim are constantly on it, from the beginning of the year to its end” [5] (11:12). “Care for” is “doresh”, with its literal meaning being to “seek”. YHVH is very intent in His constant surveillance of the land, “from the beginning of the year to the end…” meaning that He is involved in every part of the natural cycle to which this land is subject.  Curiously, “beginning (of the year”) – resheet - is spelled here without alef (normally this word is spelled resh, silent-alef, shin, yod, and tav), thus calling to mind “resh” or “rosh” (spelled, resh, yod/vav shin) which is poverty. With the biblical year’s beginning occurring in the spring, after the rainy season, crop shortage may indeed be quite prevalent. But to return to our topic… As pointed out already, Yisrael’s conduct toward YHVH will also have its ramifications on the land (e.g. 11:13 – 17).  These words of YHVH were to be inscribed on the hearts and are also to be for a sign on frontlets – “totafot” – between the eyes and on the hand (ref. 11:18).  One of the explanations for “totafot” is that it is a derivative of the Egyptian word for a hair ornament called “tataf”. [6] 

Above we noted that multiplication (of the root “rav”) of both people and livestock is mentioned several times in our Parasha.  In summation of the Parasha we read: “And you shall teach them [YHVH’s commands] to your sons by speaking of them as you sit in your house, and as you go in the way, and as you lie down, and as you rise up. And you shall write them on the side posts of your house, and on your gates, that your days and the days of your sons may be multiplied [“yirbu”, again of the root “rav”], and the days of your sons in the land which YHVH has sworn to your fathers, to give to them, as the days of the heavens over the earth” (11:19-21). The “heaven and earth”, according to last week’s Parashat Va’etchanan (4:26), are YHVH’s witnesses to His dealings with the people of His choice, both here and also when He proclaims a new covenant in Yimiyahu (Jeremiah 31:32, 37).


1 Etymological Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew, Rabbi Matityahu Clark, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem. New York.

2 The New Brown, Driver, Briggs, Gesenius Lexicon, Francis Brown Hendrickson. Publishers, PeabodyMass. 1979.

3 New Studies in Devarim, Nechama Leibowitz, trans. Aryeh Newman. Eliner Library, Department for Torah Education and Culture in the Diaspora. Hemed Books Inc., Brooklyn, N.Y.

4 Online Bible, Gill Commentary.

5 The spelling of the word used here for “beginning,” “resheet”, is irregular.  This spelling possibly hints at “ree’sh”, which is poverty (ref. Parashot Matot/ Masa’ey), since the beginning of the year in the month of Aviv occurs at the end of the winter dormancy.

6 Chumash Dvarim with Daat Mikrah comentary, Pub. Mossad Harav Kook, Jm. 2001.

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