Why we should shun Egypt and Canaan
As the Jewish nation camps in the wilderness linking the land of the Pharaohs and the promised land, they are warned not to emulate the behaviour of their place of origin or that of their destination. The verse, in this week’s Torah reading, instructs them, “Like the practice of the land of Egypt, in which you dwelled, you shall not do, and like the practice of the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you, you shall not do, and you shall not follow their statutes.” (Lev. 18,3).
Literally, the instruction is to refrain from the notoriously decadent and immoral conduct of both nations. It remains as pertinent now as it was then. The ways of these two lands also refer to common pitfalls in our lives.
Canaan, the exciting new destination ahead, is the symbol of our constant search for innovation. Too often, we become impatient with the status quo, and seek novelty for the sake of originality not necessarily improvement. The allure of newness and freshness in its own right draws us to abandon the tried and tested ways, and venture into uncharted territory. In this instant-gratification 21st century, anything that doesn’t smell fresh and different is quickly dismissed as irrelevant and passé.
Egypt, the land from which we came, represents custom. This is our natural tendency to resist change, to continue doing what we have always done. An approach may have failed us in the past, but we still retreat into the safe cocoon of the habitual. It’s crucial that we reflect and look back, following traditions and rituals. South African Jewry prizes time-honoured customs, and this has held our community together through generations. At the same time, we must constantly re-evaluate whether a practice is still relevant (if it ever was), or is actually standing in the way of progress.
Generally, the younger generation restlessly head for the greener pastures down the road less travelled. Older folk tend to shelter in the sanctuary of convention. The Torah teaches us to shun both Egypt and Canaan, to critically analyse why we are refusing to change our ways, and why we are often in such a hurry to abandon the old ways for the new.
Take heel of your character flaws
“If you do obey these rules…”
This is the opening line of the Torah portion this week.
More accurately, the Torah states, “If you eikev obey these rules…”
The word “eikev”, which, in fact, is the name of our Torah portion, seems to be redundant. Moreover, it’s an uncommon use of the word. The root of the word “eikev” comes from the word “akeiv”, meaning “heel”. There are far more common options that the Torah could have employed in this context.
Rashi, the famous biblical commentator, interprets this phrase to mean, “If even the lighter commands, which a person typically walks upon with one’s heels, you will listen to…” Rashi, thus, understands “eikev” as denoting emphasis. One must not only obey and abide by the so-called “big” commandments, but also – and perhaps especially – the “smaller” commandments that one would figuratively-speaking walk over.
The portion of Eikev is a reminder and a warning that we must remain vigilant in regard to all our actions, the seemingly important and the seemingly unimportant. There are, perhaps, things we do every day by rote and by habit without thought. It’s how we treat others and how we allow others to be treated. It’s about how we regard the world around us.
It’s in the realm of the mundane and the ordinary that we must remain particularly vigilant.
In the Book of Proverbs, the wise King Solomon wrote, “In all your ways know Him.” It’s not only when we are actively engaged in the performance of a mitzvah that we need to bring Hashem into our lives. Every moment and every place should be filled with G-dliness. We shouldn’t be so hurried in our journey through life that we pass these moments by.
Yes, the heel symbolises that upon which we step. However, the heel, more importantly, symbolises what we stand for.
What defines us as individuals isn’t necessarily the actions on which we place the highest value. We aren’t defined by the length of time we spend in shul over Yom Kippur (please do, though, come to shul this yom tov, and don’t keep glancing at the clock) or the size of the annual donation we give to charity. Rather, it’s in the everyday moments – the ways in which we interact with others socially, in our homes, and in our places of work – that we are measured.
Our eikev, our heel, indeed our very foundation, is established upon our behaviours that are almost automatic, the ones we may take for granted.
It’s here where we need to stand tall.
The never-ending voice
And Charlton Heston came down from Mount Sinai and gave us the ten commandments. Oops! Sorry, make that Moses. And he was carrying the tablets with the Big 10, repeated this week in Deuteronomy as part of Moses’ review of the past 40 years. He describes how G-d spoke those words in a mighty voice that didn’t end.
Rashi writes that Moses is contrasting G-d’s voice with human voices. The finite voice of a human being, even a Pavarotti, will fade and falter. It cannot go on forever. But the voice of the Almighty didn’t end, didn’t weaken. It remained strong throughout.
Is this all the great prophet had to teach us about the voice of G-d? That it was a powerful baritone? Is the greatness of the Infinite One, that he didn’t suffer from shortness of breath, that He didn’t need a few puffs of Ventolin? Is this a meaningful motivation for the Jews to accept the Torah?
Moses was the greatest of all prophets. He foresaw what no other prophet could see. Perhaps he saw his people becoming caught up in the civilization of ancient Greece, in the beauty, culture, philosophy, and art of the day. And they might question, “Is Torah still relevant?”
Perhaps he foresaw Jews empowered by the industrial revolution, where they might have thought Torah to be somewhat backward. Or maybe it was during the Russian Revolution, where faith and religion were deemed to be absolutely primitive.
Maybe Moses saw our own generation, with space shuttles and satellites, teleprompters and technology. And he saw young people questioning whether the good book still spoke to them.
And so, Moses tells us that the voice that thundered from Sinai was no ordinary voice. This was a voice that wasn’t only powerful at the time, it didn’t end. And it still rings out, still resonates, and speaks to each of us in every generation and every part of the world.
Revolutions come and go, but revelation is eternal. The voice of Sinai continues to proclaim eternal truths that never become passé or irrelevant. Honour your parents, revere them, look after them in their old age. Live moral lives, don’t tamper with the sacred fibre of family life. Dedicate one day every week, and keep that day holy. Stop the madness. Turn your back on the rat race, and rediscover your humanity and your children. Don’t be guilty of greed, envy, dishonesty, or corruption.
Are these ideas and values dated? Are these commandments tired or irrelevant? On the contrary. They speak to us now as perhaps never before.
Does anyone know this today better than us South Africans?
The G-dly voice has lost none of its strength, none of its majesty. The mortal voice of man declines and fades into oblivion. Politicians and spin-doctors come and go, but the heavenly sound reverberates down the ages.
Moses knew what he was saying. Torah is truth, and truth is forever. The voice of G-d shall never be stilled.
Memory versus history
Devarim is the parsha associated with Tisha B’Av, the Jewish national day of mourning. After Shabbos, we will recall the destruction of our holy temple nearly 2 000 years ago.
But why remember? The world cannot understand why we go on about the Holocaust, and that was less than 80 years ago! For more than 19 centuries, we have been remembering and observing this event, and it has become the saddest day in our calendar. Why? Why not let bygones be bygones? It’s history. What was, was. Why keep revisiting old and painful visions?
They say that Napoleon was once passing through the Jewish ghetto in Paris, and heard sounds of crying and wailing emanating from a synagogue. He stopped to ask what the lament was about. He was told that the Jews were remembering the destruction of their Temple. “When did it happen?” asked the emperor. “Some 1 700 years ago,” was the answer. Whereupon Napoleon stated with conviction that a people who never forgot their past would be destined to forever have a future.
Elie Wiesel famously once said that Jews have never had history. We have memory. History can become a book, a museum, and forgotten antiquities. Memory is alive, memories reverberate, and memory guarantees our future.
Even amidst the ruins, we refused to forget. The first temple was destroyed by the Babylonians. As they led the Jews into captivity, they sat down and wept. “By the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept remembering Zion.” What did they cry of? Their lost wealth, homes, and businesses? No. They cried for Zion and Jerusalem. “If I forget thee ‘O Jerusalem, let my right hand lose its cunning.” They were not weeping for themselves or their lost liberties but for the heavenly city and holy temple. Amidst the bondage, they aspired to rebuild, amidst the ruins, they dreamt of returning.
And because we refused to forget Jerusalem, we did return. And because we refused to accept defeat or accept our exile as a historical fait accompli, we have rebuilt proud Jewish communities the world over, while our victors have been vanquished by time. Today, there are no more Babylonians, and the people who now live in Rome aren’t the Romans who destroyed the second temple. Those nations became history while we, inspired by memory, emerged revitalised and regenerated and forever it will be true that am Yisrael chai (the people of Israel live).
Only if we refuse to forget can we hope to rebuild one day. Indeed, the Talmud assures us, “Whosoever mourns for Jerusalem, will merit to witness her rejoicing.” We dare not forget. We need to observe our national day of mourning this Saturday night and Sunday. Forego the movies and the restaurants. Sit down on a low seat to mourn with your people; and perhaps even more importantly, to remember. And, please G-d, He will restore those glorious days and rebuild His own everlasting house soon.
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