Room to Grow – Parshat Eikev 5777

room-to-grow

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

raining-cats-and-dogs.jpg

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.

Stubborn and Stiff-necked – Parshat Eikev 5775

Stubborn

I can be stubborn. It’s innate, and it’s among my less than desireable qualities. My mom will tell you I was a stubborn child, and I have no doubt she’s right, given the stubbornness Shiri exhibits more and more as she approaches two years old. However, I’m also convinced our stubborn ways aren’t closing us off to other ideas and opinions; they simply mean we stick to our guns where things like what we want to do with our days or exactly what we want to eat are concerned.

Shiri does things on her own terms, whether that means waiting to walk until well into her fourteenth month, refusing food until we can identify what she’s craving, or waking up early simply so we come in and hug her.  I’ve heard countless times that a strong will is a good quality to have, as it usually means she will advocate for her needs. This independent stubbornness will most likely serve to her benefit as she grows. At the same time, it is extremely trying in a two-year-old.

We learn in our parshah this week, parshat Eikev, that raising a stiff-necked child is nothing new.  The the Israelites were also stubborn.  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 of 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.

Chapter 9, verse 6 teaches, “Know, then, that it is not for any virtue of yours that the Lord your God is giving you this good land to possess; for you are a stiff-necked people.  Remember; never forget how you provoked the Lord your God in anger.”  This is basically a scolding of the Israelites, reminding them that they are receiving the Promised Land not because of their excellent behavior, but because they earned it in a battle of endurance.

“Stiff-necked” is not usually a compliment; we often think of it as a negative trait.  It makes you think of people who are unwilling to change, who can’t take criticism. However, the commentary Exodus Rabbah gives this section of our text a different spin.  “The stubbornness of the Jews in the face of persecution has enabled us to remain Jewish through the centuries.”  In other words, without this stubborn nature, the Jewish people would not have stood the test of time.

And when you think about it, the very narrative we live by is the most stubborn part about us. When you think of the Torah scroll, what comes to mind? The atzei chayim, the handles at the ends of the center dowels, are incredibly stiff-necked to support the weight of our history. The text contained within it is a stubborn, unchanging document, and the stubbornness is reinforced year after year because we cycle through the exact same parshiyot.

Yet, as conservative Jews we have managed to find the balance between sacred, stubborn tradition and lifestyle choices that don’t hermetically seal our culture and cut it off from the world.  We argue, we question, we test our limits. Welcome to Judaism 101 – yes, you’re in the right place. Maybe that’s why as frustrating as Shiri’s stubbornness can be, it’s also a huge relief, because I know that even at her young age, she’s embracing her heritage. Now if I could only get her to eat carrots.