Saturday, August 11, 2012

Parashat Ekev 5772

In courses given at the religious studies departments of many universities, one is taught that all religions seek to reassure people from their greatest fears. On the whole, one can observe that religions promise that, providing people obey the rules dictated in the holy text, they will survive – in the short term by having enough to eat, enough food for themselves and their families, in the sense that their fields will be fertile and provide a good harvest, and their flock will reproduce well and provide more meat for them and in the long term because their God promises that their blood-line will survive down the generations, the god promises that they themselves will also be fertile.

It is repeated over and over in the Tanach that God will provide food and fertility. In Ekev in particular, the promise appears right at the start, in Chapter 7. Here’s a quote: “The Lord will multiply you and bless the fruit of your body and fruit of your land, your corn and your wine and your oil, the increase of your cattle and the young of your flock in the land which He promised your father to give to you.”

It is ironic that I am married to an arch-atheist who at this very moment is having to demonstrate scientifically that our first and foremost interest during this life is to keep ourselves safe and sound, and if possible, to have children ourselves or support others close to us in having them. Some would say that this is common sense, but in academic circles this comes under the heading of evolutionary psychology. The question has arisen in this last week. Very suitable for Parashat Ekev.

In the following chapter of the parashah, chapter 8, the tone changes: the first verse is a reminder that there are commandments to be obeyed. The next one that God is responsible for the trials that befell the Bnei Israel these 40 years past in the desert: for the suffering that they endured. These trials are sent so that God may know how we perform under difficult conditions. Will we continue to carry out the commandments? God is responsible for the bad experiences such as the hunger as well as for the manna which came from the sky. He will chastise us – chastise us lovingly, but punish us nevertheless: God-caused suffering. Verse 6 is another reminder of the commandments to be kept. Then follows a reiteration of all the good things that God will make happen, the water, the wheat, the barley, the vine, fig trees and pomegranates, olive-trees and honey. Plenty.

Verse 11: again, a reminder not to forget God’s commandments. Followed by a listing of all the good things about to happen, the herds multiplying, the houses built, the hunger satisfied, and a warning in verse 14 “lest your heart grow haughty” - Do not forget the God who brought you out of Egypt! A reminder of the hardships of the wanderings in the desert, and finally the verse this drashah is about: verse 17 reads: “And you will say to yourself: It is my own strength and the might of my hand which have accumulated this wealth for me”.

In other words, I and I alone have created the situation I am in – all is well with me and truly it is because of my own efforts that it is so. I have overcome the difficulties and I deserve the reward. Whereas everything written shows you that God is the one who has created both the blessings and the curses.

The warning that this self-centered way of thinking is wrong exists in a more extreme fashion elsewhere: the prophet Ezekiel describes Pharaoh as “the great serpent who couches in the midst of his streams, who says: My river is my own, and I have made myself”. Here is a complete denial of any causal agent outside the self. The evil embodied by Pharaoh lies first and foremost in his egocentricity.

This arrogance is something that can arise easily in less extreme forms,; it is a natural way to think, for we all do it to some extent, unless we strive to avoid it or are indeed very wise and humble, like Moses. It is observable in every culture. When all is well with us, when we succeed in life, we are convinced that it is entirely thanks to our own efforts, and we minimize in our own minds the events which are beyond our control, such as sun, water and fertile land and the contributions others may have made to our success.

Maybe we graciously thank them, outwardly acknowledging them, all the while thinking “But really, if it had not been for me, none of this would have happened”. It is an all too human scenario. And it may be true, indeed we may have made a most important contribution.

But those who are on the outside, observing, may see, on the other hand – that this person was born with great gifts or maybe simply one great gift, think of a great musician for instance – and without those gifts he or she would not have succeeded. It could be that this person was born into a family which recognized the gift and did its best to foster it. And then maybe the society was a society which in turn valued people who are gifted and enabled them to flourish. We are all aware of what happens to the poor women born in countries where they are not allowed to leave home, who are prevented from having access to education and training of any kind. To live in New Zealand is a blessing, indeed in most democratic countries, except maybe for some of the poor European ones, today. That we live in a country which is at peace and allows us to flourish. (Who was to know that Greece would descend into turmoil?) That our sons and daughters are not obliged to risk their lives in order to defend our borders. That most of us enjoy some measure of healthcare which enables us to live to ripe old age.

All these things are by and large not in our control. When my great-grandmother was my age, she was a little old lady who wore only black and was quite fragile. She was truly elderly. And here I am, big and strong, and expecting according to statistics to live another 20 years. Not because I am a better person, it is just that I live in a century which has not been decimated by war twice, I have never gone hungry and medicine has greatly progressed. Some would say we are lucky, others would thank God. Our lives are the result of a multiplicity of actions by those whom we know and by many whom we don’t. There is a lot to be grateful for. And suddenly something can go terribly wrong and we find ourselves in the midst of disaster, as happened to all those who were in Christchurch last year.

I was reminded of the serpent in the river very recently. We were at dinner with a group of friends – most of them not from our congregation – and we were talking about the rising inequality in our society. We were all in agreement that the middle classes were increasingly impoverished, that the poor were even poorer and that the 1% were enjoying an huge income at the expense – literally – of everyone else. One of our number could indeed be counted among that 1%, and as you would expect he is a confident chap who does not hesitate to express his views. He said that he could see nothing wrong with inequality. Opposite him sat one very clever man and next to him sat another. A quiet and intense debate took place and an attempt was made to clarify for him how badly things will go for our society if we revert to the situation which existed in the 19th century, when a few people were extremely rich – and others worked a full working day and did not earn enough to feed their families. It became clear in the conversation that the problem for our rich friend was that he felt entitled to all the money he made. What is wrong with inequality he asked repeatedly, in aggrieved tones. I remember a well known religious leader stating categorically that it is immoral for a person to be paid too little for them to support themselves in a decent fashion. At the moment, we are watching the prices go up – recently the petrol again, - and the people who do not earn much or who are on the benefit suffer the most. The conversation turned towards the French revolution, which was triggered by the high price of bread. It was to no avail: we could not make our friend see the wrongs of the situation. He was an embodiment of verse 17 of Ekev: “And you will say to yourself: “It is my own strength and the might of my hand which have accumulated this wealth for me”. Therefore he feels entitled to it. He has forgotten that he has been blessed in many ways.

The translation just quoted is not a literal one. Literally the Hebrew says “And you will say in your hearts".
Why "in your hearts"?

Someone might say that it does not matter what happens in a person’s heart, it is what they say out loud that matters. If you don’t actually say it, you’ll harm no one…In his short article on this topic, Levi Atson writes about politicians: they are careful of their every word so as to say only things which are acceptable, which are politically correct. Except for the slip of the tongue when they actually say what they think,  and all is revealed, the end of a promising career.

Levi Atson writes: “Racism, hate, bigotry, and gossip should be deleted way before the words take the train to the microphone. For once they sit at the station of the mind, it is too late; the train is about to come. And then, there is no turning back.” (Levi Atzon on )

It is important to notice one’s own thoughts, to be aware when they stray too far into arrogance and self-righteousness, to let those thoughts go and remind ourselves that we are not the authors of our own well-being. It is difficult to see where exactly our contribution lies and where the contribution of all the countless people who have fashioned our lives - those who have loved us, nurtured us, taught us, healed us, and also those who have hurt us and harmed us - they may well be the same ones. And what the contribution is of genetics and the weather and events happening far from here or in Parliament down the road.

Our world is one enormous web of interconnectedness over time and space and everyone belongs to it. We cannot hope to understand it or grasp it with our little minds.

So we say Baruch atah Adonai for everything, and in particular for this lovely Shabbat morning.

I wish you Shabbat shalom!