Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Grateful for  the capacity to transcend the legal and reach the realm of  the indeterminate  goodness and justice

“ Be sure to keep the commandments, decrees, and laws that the Lord your God has enjoined upon you;
Do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord....”(Deut.6:17-18)
“ועשית  הישר והטוב בעיני ה”  (דברים ו,יח)

These verses were read in the synagogue on Saturday, August 5, Shabbat Nachamu.
It may be asked: Why are these words added? After all, the reader has been instructed by the previous passage and indeed by many other passages ,of God’s requirement of goodness and fairness as contained in the mitzvot-the ordinances enjoined by the Divine? Is not observance of the mitzvot not sufficient?
A plausible answer is that this is a summary statement that defines the commandments as just and right,and thus is not superfluous. 

Upon closer exploration both of the verses in “V’Etchanan,” last week”s portion, and the opening verse of the parshah known as “Eikev,” this weeks segment,  the addition of these five Hebrew words provides a significant insight into the desired practise and fulfillment of Jewish spiritual behavior. 

With the opening words of this week’s Torah portion,”Eikev,” we encounter a word-”eikev” whose definition carries a mutidimentional meaning . “And if -‘eikev’-you obey these rules...the Lord will  favor and bless you.” (Deut.7:12-13)
The word ‘eikev’ is correctly translated as ‘in the heels of-the word means heel!’ (Consider Jacob’s name,Ya’akov, derived from the fact that he held on to his twin brother’s heel to prevent him from emerging from the womb first and gain the special status of first born-Genesis 25:26)
The Torah established the principle of reward for good behavior, and punishment for behavior that is unacceptable.This asserion emphasizes the individual’s 
unique identity as a responsible and free-choosing human being whose humanity, some would say, divinity, rests in this dimension of freedom and responsibility.

What’s curious about the word ‘eikev,’ however, is that it contains a very different definition as well,namely, ‘crooked,’ ‘devious,’ ‘deceptive,’ ‘ insincere.’
( see Genesis 27:36, where Esau, having been deceived by his brother and cheated out of his birthright  cries out in pain that his brother has supplanted him twice to wrest the birthright from him!)
How does the notion of crookedness or insincerity fit into our statement of ‘in the heels of ‘ or ‘as a consequence of’ our obedience or disobedience, we will  be either blessed or cursed!

At this point the reference to doing what is ‘fair and just in God’s sight’ is critical for a fuller understanding of Judaism’s  standard of moral behavior. This phrase is inexact, unlike legal prescriptions that are usually concrete and objectively understandable. After all,what does it mean exactly to be fair and right in God’s eyes?

I would like to suggest that what is signaled  in the use of ‘eikev’and the additional words referring to just and good behavior is the risk of doing things crookedly, in spite of devoted loyalty to the Law, without the ability to relate to  life with fairness and goodness . It is not difficult to imagine the observance of the mitzvah as disconnected from its intentioality, a rote like and mechanical relationship  rooted in the need to perform the deed out of fear or the need for some structure which provides security in one’s psychological life. Thus these few extra words emphasizing doing the fair and the good in God’s sight suggests the need to examine one’s heart and feelings ,to invest not only logical thought to the intricacies of the Law, but to explore the stirrings of the heart and soul with an eye that is focussed inwards.The Torah’s insistence on the inner world, the world of feeling, intention,sincerity and honesty,imagination and poetry, conscience, our sense of humanity, all of which is beyond tangible description is fundamental to the achievement of the more complete  moral and compassionate life.

By making us of the term ‘eikev,’ the Author indirectly touches on the ‘unconscious’ and elicits an association to the more primitive part of our inner life,one that is based on reward and punishment, ‘the crooked,’rather than on the recognition of doing the fair and good in the eyes of God,  acting because something is intrinsicaaly right and good. Eikev declares that we are blessed with the capacity to go beyond the observable and measurable, the legal, and touch the divinity in our souls through the posture of fairness, rightness and love.Let us not ignore this gift.

No comments: