Author's Note on Parshat Ekev
Date: August 3, 2018
22 Menachem Av 5778
“V’ata Yisrael — And now Israel, what does G-d/Hashem, your G-d/Elokecha ask of you?” This question in Parshat Ekev can be rephrased as: “OK – I’ve read the history, I’ve read the laws, I’ve seen what our people did in the desert and how they received the Ten Commandments and worshipped a golden calf. But, G-d, can’t you just tell me what you want from ME?”
The immediate answer given is to fear (or have awe of) G-d (prompting the Talmudic rabbis to remark that “everything is in the hands of Heaven except the fear of Heaven”). Fine. How exactly do we do that? Moses makes it look simple; but we are not Moses. So how do we work on this idea of having awe of G-d? Perhaps we can begin to see it by looking “under the hood” as it were at the mitzvot and seeing the deeper meaning and connection to what they can teach us. Here are two basic examples – mezuzah and bread.
In the words of the Shema, the second paragraph of which is in this week’s Parsha, we read “Uch’tavtem ahl mezuzot beytecha” – You should inscribe them on the mezuzot of your house. In this context, the word “mezuzot” means “doorposts.” Yet, if you go to your local Jewish bookstore and ask to see the mezuzot, you will not be given a tour of the doorposts at the entrances and exits of the building; instead, you will see a display of various receptacles and, more importantly, samples of parchment (the mezuzah) containing the words of the Shema that can be affixed to your doorposts (the mezuzot).
What is unique about the mezuzah is that, unlike other ritual objects, the word refers both to the object itself – the doorpost – and the separate ritual object that will be attached to the doorpost. By contrast, other ritual objects simply refer to the thing itself. For example, the tallit is simply the tallit, it has no reference to the body around which it is wrapped. Similarly, tefillin refer simply to the objects, not to the arm or the head to which they are bound.
To learn something about what the mezuzah represents, consider the beracha (blessing) one recites when attaching a mezuzah. We praise G-d who has commanded us “Likboa Mezuzah” – to make the mezuzah permanent. But which mezuzah is being made permanent, the (secular) doorpost or the (religious) parchment? The answer is, both! That is, the mezuzah teaches us that only when we infuse our secular lives with a sense of religious purpose do we make our place in this world a permanent place for holiness.
What about bread? Well, as the Torah teaches us, G-d gave us the manna in the desert and tested us so we would learn that “Man does not live by bread alone.” There are a lot of well-known lessons to learn from this statement. But consider what we can learn by looking at the beracha (blessing) we recite before eating bread. We praise G-d as the one who brings forth bread from the Earth. Really? When was the last time you saw loaves of bread growing from the ground? Bread itself does not come from the Earth; instead it is only when we combine the ingredients that G-d does allow to grow from the Earth with the intelligence that G-d implanted within us that we have bread for which we can praise G-d. The beracha reminds us that it is not by our power and strength alone that there is bread on our table.
So back to our question — what is it that G-d asks of us? Maybe it is to infuse the “earthly” with holiness; to build a partnership between heaven and Earth and religious and secular. Then, we begin to see how this world is supposed to work and how we can develop a sense of awe for the One who created all this.