D'var Ekev 2008

Out of curiosity, do you know anyone who has eaten a whole pot roast in one sitting?

So here’s the short story that explains why I ask: My Mom and Dad get married. Mom makes a pot roast. Dad eats the whole thing in one sitting. How did this happen?

My Dad was the baby in a family of 3 strapping boys (4 if you count grandpa) living in an apartment on Sheridan Avenue in the Bronx in the 40’s and 50’s. Grandma had a simple technique for feeding her family, similar to what you might use if you were raising a small swarm of locusts: She would only put out the food she wanted to have eaten. If she bought a whole chicken but wanted some left for tomorrow, she’d put out half the chicken.

My Mom was raised here in Cleveland Heights with her one brother in a home that was remarkably free of food issues.

So my parents get married, and my Mom is doing her best Donna Reed impression. She’s got the table set, the pearls are one, the whole shebang. They sit down to dinner and my Dad digs in. And keeps digging. And digging and digging.

At the end of the meal, the pot roast is gone, my Dad is unable to move and can hear his arteries hardening, and my Mom is beside herself trying to figure out how she’s going to feed a man who eats whole pot roasts for supper!

I want to make it clear that this is the only time he did that. After they got over the initial shock, it didn’t take long to figure out what happened. Which is why they continue to tell the story today with amusement and love.

In this weeks portion we read “When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to God for the good land which He has given you.” (8:10).

A lot of focus is spent on the “give thanks” part of that statement. We bracha, we eat, we bentsch our hearts out. But equally important is taking the time to recognize when we are, in fact, full. When we have had enough. Sure, some of what happened to my parents was because of cultural issues and childhood habits. But some of it rests on them. Why didn’t my Dad realize he was full? Why didn’t my Mom ask him?

Last week, Moses asks for a chance to enter Canaan, and God replies “Rav Lach!”. This is often interpreted as “Enough!” but many Rabbi’s extend it to mean “You have enough!”. – God was telling Moses that he didn’t need Canaan, he already had everything he could ever want.

In Ekev we have the chance to learn the habit of self-assessment, to ask ourselves whether we’re satistfied and then put down the pot roast. Conversely, if we are still hungry, we need to know that God’s bounty is out there, and we gain nothing by depriving ourselves. “When you have eaten your fill” the Torah tells us. We aren’t commanded to stop short of that. There will be enough, we are reassured. Like they say on the airplane, put the mask over your own face before helping someone else. Because if you pass out from lack of oxygen while trying to be a hero, you aren’t really helping anyone.

We are instructed to take the time to be thoughtful about our consumption of the bounty around us. Not just food, or even money. Or unlimited cell phone minutes for that matter. Extending this beyond the pshat, the literal text, we are given the chance to recognize the bounteous amounts of opportunities around us. Of choices. Of shoulders to lean against or cry on. Of Friendship. Support. Patience. We should have enough self esteem to feel OK about taking our fill of these things because, in fact, that’s the only real resource we as humans have to give, which is truly ours. As I’ll discuss in a minute, the food and money and stuff really isn’t under our control. But our time, our hope, our love is.

Or maybe I’m just paraphrasing the mission statement at my synagogue. “Beth El – The Heights Synagogue builds vibrant Jewish community. We welcome all in participatory, traditional, egalitarian worship and learning.” There are no volunteers at Beth El. There are only members and friends. We share in what we have. We joyfully bring it to the table each week and eat our fill.

Having been thoughtful about our consumption, and taken care to eat our fill but not more than that, we are then (and only then) commanded, to give thanks. To The One from whom all blessings flow, and (I would add) to the direct provider as well. It’s easy to see how it would be selfish to take someone’s time or friendship or help or pot roast and then not to thank them.

The word that gives name to this portion – Eikev is translated to mean “as a result of “. It shares the root with the word Yaakov, or “heel”. So another way of translating this is “on the heels of”.

When we are really being honest and thoughtful about the world around us, we know that nothing occurs by itself. Everything is ekev – on the heel of something else. Fredrick Douglass said it soberly “Properly speaking, there are in the world no such men as self-made men.”. As we go through life, we are always dependent on someone or something. As we strive to achieve our goals, we are attached to one another and to God. We are constantly holding on to the heels of others. One of my favorite public expressions of this idea was when Fred Rogers – Mr. Rogers – was given a lifetime achievement award at the 1997 Emmys. By way of acceptance, he asked for 10 seconds of silence while the audience thought about the people who had helped them become who they were. Fred Rogers understood Ekev.

So this leads me to another major passage in this portion – the second paragraph of the Shema. It appears here in verses 11:13-21 and includes the following statement: “If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the God and serving Him with all your heart and soul, I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late”.

Not following God’s commandments, Torah continues to tell us, will cause “God’s anger will flare up against you, and He will shut up the skies so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce; and you will soon perish from the good land that the God is assigning to you”

Such direct causality may give the modern reader pause. Certainly the Reform movement found this concept troubling, and removed it from their siddur. The younger Reconstructionist movement replaces it with other sections of Torah text. It’s easy to understand why. Drought and famine are equal opportunity tragedies, and to ascribe them to a direct action of ours is a challenging thought. Even moreso, the idea that rain is given and crops thrive solely by virtue of our following commandments smacks of a “gimme-god” mentality.

“Dear Hashem-a Claus: I was a good mitzvah menche this year. Don’t listen to what my sister tells you. Please leave good rains in my stocking this year.”

Trite surface readings and silly personifications of God aside, which minimize the validity of the pshat – the plain text meaning – I don’t think it’s so extreme an idea that our adherence to the mitzvot has an impact on the physical world around us. It just may take a little more thought. I believe that passage appears in the portion named “Ekev” for a reason. If I accept that everything happens as a result of what came before it; and if I accept that in the same portion we are told to be thoughtful and thankful about our consumption, THEN I find my key to understanding Shema paragraph 2.

If we continue to shove resources into the gaping maw of our society without regard for whether we need it or not then we not only use what may be difficult to replace but we also pollute – spiritually and physically – whatever is left over. If we observe the commandments – the ones that deal with respect and love and fair use – when we consume stuff and interact with others then blessings will flow. And if we don’t, they won’t. It is we ourselves who are handing out the reward or punishment mentioned in the Shema.

I will leave you with this thought: Maybe this part of the Shema isn’t so challenging after all. It turns out that it is back in the Reform liturgy, at least in an English reading. Mishkan T’filah, the new Reform Siddur released in 2007, includes this thought from Rabbi Richard Levy:

If we can hear the words from Sinai
then love will flow from us
and we shall serve all that is holy
with all our intellect and all our passion
and all our life.
If we can serve all that is holy
we shall be doing all that humans can do
to help the rains to flow
the grasses will be green,
the grains golden like the sun,
and the rivers filled with life once more.
All the children of God shall eat
and there will be enough.
But if we turn from Sinai’s words
and serve only what is common and profane,
making gods of our own comfort or power,
then the holiness of life will contract for us,
our world will grow inhospitable.

Shabbat Shalom