Testing My Limits – Parshat Eikev 5779

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It seems that when we feel comfortable around certain people, we tend to let down boundaries and test the limits of those relationships. While I know my spouse, Duncan, loves me, I also know I can rail, scream, cry, and otherwise vent to him after a tough day. He can take it because he loves me, I love him, and together we provide a mutual safe space to have this flood of emotion. My children are the same way. They usually keep themselves pulled together when we’re out in public, and then they have a release of emotion and let it all out when we’re home. And boy do they test the boundaries! But at least I know I’m not alone; this type of boundary testing has been going on as long as there have been deep, trusting relationships, including in the Torah.

This week we read Parshat Eikev. We learn of the blessing and reward you receive if you keep the laws of the Torah and of the consequences for those who don’t follow those laws. The Torah recaps the lessons learned from the Golden Calf, the breaking of the first set of tablets, and Moshe’s prayer for the people. We finally receive the second section of the Shema, followed by a clear warning to guard the Torah and its commandments.

As the relationship between God and the Israelite nation deepens, there are moments when the people lash out and moments when God lashes out. Now, at the end of the journey, God tests the Israelites one last time before they go into the land of Israel and become forever bound by the covenant.

Chapter 8, verse 2 reads, “Remember the long way that the Lord your God has made you travel in the wilderness these past forty years, that He might test you by hardships to learn what was in your hearts: whether you would keep His commandments or not.” What is God testing in the Israelites? They left everything they knew to follow these laws, so what’s left to test? Was it a test of their faith to see if, after everything, they still had faith? Was it a test of their gratitude to God, even if they knew they were going to survive and flourish?

Perhaps it’s the same kind of test we use in our closest relationships. We’re not trying to push the other person away, but the result is that we test and push the boundaries of that relationship. In a strange way, it’s how we reaffirm our love and commitment. In this moment, God is seeking that reaffirmation. Having these limits or boundaries with God and with each other doesn’t mean that there’s less love or that the love is restrained. In fact, it’s the opposite. Knowing when you can and can’t cross those lines (and when you can stretch them) is the ultimate kind of trust. And that’s true love.

Love Lift Us Up – Parshat Eikev 5778

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“Love is a four-letter word.” It’s a humorous nod to the frustrations and difficulties we encounter in even our closest relationships. Perhaps the real frustration is that love has so many sides to it. Think of all the ways we both praise and denounce this emotion in popular music. “Love stinks” and “love hurts” and “love bites.” Yet, “all you need is love” and “I will always love you.” Love is supposed to be this positive notion of warmth and connection, but there are plenty of challenges and harsh realities that go along with it. Letting go of a loved one can be extremely painful, and a broken heart at the end of a relationship hurts physically and emotionally. Sometimes love comes with strings attached, which complicates things further.

The Torah this week in Parshat Eikev brings us back to the give and take of a loving relationship. Last week we read the V’ahavta and learned about all that we should do to love God. This week we read of what happens when God loves us. The parshah begins with a reminder of the blessings and rewards of success that will come to the Israelites if they guard and observe the Torah and all its commandments. We are then reminded of our responsibility to remove idolaters from our midst. The final section of the parshah is a reminder of the Israelites’ experiences in the desert, their missteps, and what they learned from each of these moments.

The text begins with the main elements of God’s promises to the patriarchs in addition to the land of Israel. “And He will love you, and bless you, and make you multiply.” This relationship suggests that God’s love is a blessing, and that blessing manifests itself in the continuation of our nation. While being a great nation and inheriting a great land are essential for our prosperity, love is always included as a benefit of being chosen by God.

Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “Only a blessing that flows from love deserves to be called a blessing.” Love is ultimately at the core of how God shows blessing to the Israelites and how we fulfill our end of the agreement by multiplying. How fitting that this lesson of love between God and humankind and from person to person comes as we near the High Holidays, a time when we ask forgiveness from God and our fellow humans. May we use this as a reminder into the new year to approach all our interactions from a place of love.

Room to Grow – Parshat Eikev 5777

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As the older sister in my family, I was lucky to get the brand new kid clothes; the hand-me-downs went to my younger sister and younger cousin. This was the case pretty much up until I was in middle school. In fact, when my sister was a toddler, she actually thought that “going shopping” meant going into our basement to get the next size up box of clothes. We had a great system going until both my younger cousin and sister were suddenly taller than me. By high school I was the one who started to receive hand-me-ups, and to be honest, I was fine with how the tables had turned. This was a time when I relied on my babysitting money for things like car insurance and my own gas, so the free, gently-worn clothes were welcome in my closet.

At a certain point, a college student can no longer wear clothing meant for a middle schooler, even if it fits. It’s a shame, in a way, because to this day I still have some favorite outfits that I can’t bring myself to part with even though they are neither fashionably relevant nor appropriate for a rabbi to wear.  

This week we read Parshat Eikev, in which we learn of the blessing and reward for keeping the laws of the Torah and the consequences for those who don’t. The Torah then recaps the stories and lessons learned from the Golden Calf, the breaking of the first set of tablets, and Moshe’s prayer for the people. Finally we receive the second section of the Shema as well as a clear warning to guard the Torah and its commandments.  

In chapter 8, verse 4, God alludes to the fact that the clothes the Israelites took from Egypt did not wear out. After 40 years of wandering in the desert, these magic garments were still fashionable and practical, not to mention miraculously intact. The Midrashic commentary Deuteronomy Rabbah interprets this to mean:

The faith you practiced every day never wore out, nor did you outgrow it, while the faith you took out only on special occasions (like the Golden Calf) shrank and became too small for you. Similarly, your children’s religious outlook grew with them as they grew and matured.

Some aspects of our faith – of Judaism itself – change as we age just like our clothing sizes and clothing tastes. Our belief in God when we’re children doesn’t necessarily resemble our belief in God as adults. Our life experiences mold and shape us as we mature, so just as our size and style change as we age, so too our understanding of and relationship with our religion can and should change. However, when we outgrow clothes, we don’t give up and walk around naked. Therefore, we read Parshat Eikev as a reminder that if something in your Judaism doesn’t fit quite right, it’s a sign you should perhaps look through the “wardrobe” and decide what to donate and what to keep. In other words, it’s time to study, discuss, engage, and reevaluate your perspective. In Judaism and in attire, fresh eyes and an open outlook are always in style.

 

Raining Cats and Dogs – Parshat Eikev 5776

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Like many children, when I was growing up I had a chore chart. I received monetary compensation for doing small jobs around the house like making my bed, getting the mail, and putting away my laundry. One special responsibility of mine was taking care of our family pet. Part of my allowance was earned for giving our dog her treats in the morning and at night, and for making sure she had food in her bowl. Caring for a pet is often one of the first responsible acts we give our children. Even now at three years old, my daughter Shiri is responsible for helping us feed our dog Stanley at breakfast each morning and at dinner each night.

What you may not know is that feeding your pet is not just a good entry-level chore for a little one, but is actually mandated in our Torah portion this week. Parshat Eikev teaches us in many different ways how to build a community. It begins by asking us to make the choice whether or not we will live according to God’s laws. If we make the “wise” choice, we will be blessed and increase the love and acceptance in the world. Adhering to these laws means, at a basic level, remembering to say please and thank you. On another level, it means remembering that we are a part of something bigger.

Chapter 11, verse 15 implores, “I will also provide grass in the fields for your cattle – and thus shall you eat your fill.” The Talmudic commentators took special notice of the order of the words in this verse. The rain doesn’t allow us to eat first; rather, the rain comes so our animals will eat and then we will eat. In other words, the Talmud teaches us that one may not eat before feeding one’s animals. It isn’t just a chore to feed your pets, it is a mitzvah. Taken further, the verse reminds us that our responsibility is to take care of others who cannot take care of themselves before satisfying our own needs. In fact, our own hunger only adds to our empathy for others who are hungry.

God’s weekly chore list includes many obligations to others, but most important is remembering those who cannot feed (or take care of) themselves, including our pets. Responsibility comes in all shapes and sizes, but you’re never too young to learn what it means to care for others.