Parashah Eikev, while it may be one of the parashyot in Deuteronomy that we gloss over on our way to Simchat Torah, actually raises several challenging questions and can teach us meaningful lessons. In this parashah, Moses continues his speech to the Israelites before they cross over into the Promised Land.
This parashah repeats one line over and over again in some variation: “And if you do obey these rules and observe them carefully, the Eternal your God will maintain faithfully for you the covenant made on oath with your fathers." (Deuteronomy 7:12). Essentially, these lines say that if you follow God’s commandments, God will reward you. Both the Reform movement -- and I -- find these lines challenging, and they have been removed from the current Reform prayerbook. We take issue with this idea of "earning" God's love or protection. How does one reconcile the fact that bad things happen to good people? This is the age-old question of theodicy. Many years ago, after the destruction of the Second Temple, our Sages struggled with this question. To deal with it, they invented the idea of the olam haba, the world to come where everyone will get what they "deserve," and there will be no more hardship in the world.
While Parashah Eikev raises the question of theodicy and introduces the Deuteronomic theology that I and many others find challenging, it also seems to answer our questions and objections in Deuteronomy 10:12: “And now, O Israel, what does the Eternal your God demand of you? Only this: to revere the Eternal your God, to walk only in divine paths, to love and to serve the Eternal your God with all your heart and soul." God expects us to do our best to love and revere God. That is all we have to do to “earn” God’s love. In any circumstance, we can follow this commandment. We can revere and love God when things are going right, and more importantly, if we choose to believe in a God who loves us when bad things happen, we can turn to God in times of trouble instead of turning away.
Parashah Eikev can also teach us many other things: namely to be self reflective, less stubborn, and humble. Deuteronomy 10:16 reads, "Cut away, therefore, the thickening about your hearts and stiffen your neck no more." In other places in the Torah, the word u'maltem, translated as “cut away” in this instance, is used in the commandment of circumcision. What does it mean to circumcise one's heart? More specifically, what are we supposed to be cutting away and why? Various commentators have interpreted this phrase: Rabbi Sforno, a 15th century Italian Torah commentator, explains that the "foreskin" that we are instructed to cut away is the prejudice that prevents us from seeing our mistakes. Rashi writes that we are "cutting away" this excess, this thickening, to remove the closure that is keeping us from letting God into our hearts.
Additionally, the second half of this verse instructs us to no longer "stiffen" our necks, to stop being stubborn. Here, we are asked to be self-reflective and humble, regardless of whether we believe in God. To be prepared to enter the land of Israel, or our Promised Land, we need to let go of our stubbornness and our preconceived notions and see ourselves and the world around us as they truly are. Only then can we truly be prepared for the land of milk and honey.
Parashah Eikev also teaches us to be humble when everything is going well. At this point in the Torah, the Israelites have pretty much reached the end of their journey. They have wandered for many years and are finally about to enter the Promised Land. But we are still instructed to be humble. We are told that we should "befriend the stranger, for [we] were strangers in the land of Egypt." (Deuteronomy 10:19) Our good fortune does not give us the right to overlook the bad fortune of others, whether they are our friends or "strangers," those who are different from us. Too often, in a world of political echo chambers, we ignore our own good privilege, whether economic, social or racial. We forget that just 75 years ago, Nazis tried to wipe Jews off the map. We were persecuted. We were strangers. We must remember that and befriend the stranger in any way that we can even if we may be living in a place of relative good fortune today.