The grand command

Rabbi Dale Schreiber is a chaplain providing Jewish care coordination for Pathways Hospice and Palliative Care and has a private practice, Renewal-in-Action, specializing in resiliency, spiritual development and compassion fatigue recovery.  

By Rabbi Dale Schreiber

The Book of Deuteronomy really could be called the Book of Departure, as the Israelites are about to cross into a new land. It is called D’varim in Hebrew. It means the Book of Words, or Things. It also is referred to as the Book of Admonishment because there is some considerable finger wagging done by Moses as the ancient people prepare to move forward in time. 

Our portion this week is called Eikev, a word that occurs seven times in the Pentateuch. It is a word with several translations. In this portion, it has been translated as “if” or “because” or — my favorite — “consequentially.” 

But it first appears in the creation story of Genesis in which God admonishes the serpent for luring Eve into eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Consequentially, the serpent is destined to travel in a certain way, leaving it vulnerable to those who walk in an upright fashion. The serpent, when threatened, will strike the heel (the eikev) in self-defense. 

It appears again in Jacob’s birth, when he grabs the heel (eikev) of his brother Esau. Jacob is literally born on the heels of his twin brother.  

Our portion opens on the heels of Tisha B’Av two weeks ago, and on the heels of last week where Torah says: Don’t think you were chosen as a precious people because you were more numerous. You are precious because you are the fewest, and you are a participant in an eternal love song. We are still among the fewest of all the peoples, and we are still, according to Moses, obligated for hearkening to his message.

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This is the message with which Eikev begins: Consequentially, you have heard that you have a responsibility to God and to each other. If you honor these relationships, you, as individuals, and you, as collective residents in this increasingly fragile world, will benefit.  

In other words, the message Moses is sending is for our own good.

Moses transcends his own time when he says: Remember the path that brought you here. Remember and appreciate the providence that enables you to stand on a new threshold filled with uncertainty, for sure, but filled also with potential for greatness. Remember, Moses says, we don’t live by bread alone. 

The sages remind us frequently that without bread there is no Torah and vice versa. Judaism teaches that we need both if we truly are to do more than survive.  

Three times Moses tells the Israelites to observe the entire mitzvah he is giving them. It is a word in the singular and, as such, a distinct departure from the usual plural form (mitzvot) used throughout the Torah when speaking about Jewish law and observance.  

I am puzzled by this singular form. What is the one grand demand Moses is talking about? The rabbis draw a parallel between the word mitzvah and another word, an Aramaic word, tzava, which means “connection.” Is Moses reminding us to stay connected? Or is he connecting us to something more than the explicit wisdom of the text, something he wants his people to understand for all time?

Many commentators assume Moses’ mitzvah is talking about the verse that asks: “And, now, Israel, what does God desire of you?” His answer is similar to that found in the haftarah from the prophet Micah, read a few weeks ago. Moses says God wants our reverence, our observance, our devotion and service, our humility, and our passion for perfecting a partnership for healing our world.   

Other commentators focus on the powerful idea articulated by Moses for “cutting away the barriers of our hearts” and “resisting our own stubborn, self-serving and contentious selves” because the heart can easily become hardened or calloused when exposed to daily doses of violence and media absurdities. Eikev reminds us that we have a unique relationship with God, one that inspires us to raise human life to levels of sacred behavior, caring, justice, truthfulness and love.

I believe, in reading the text this year, Moses is talking about a mitzvah that can help us achieve those goals. It isn’t a mandated obligation found anywhere else in Torah. He identifies it in the very first sentence of Eikev. Moses gives us the mitzvah referred to as et ha-chesed, the attribute of kindness, pledged by God to our ancestors.  

Kindness is one of the three foundational pillars upon which the world stands. The rabbis of the Mishna say the world rests on three things: Torah, Service (avodah) and Acts of Kindness.  Rabbi Maurice Lamm, z’l, sage, scholar and founder of the Jewish Hospice movement, writes: “Being Jewish is a 24-hour occupation, and the most consistent act of faith is kindness.”  

Moses is inviting you to become an agent of good, an angel of mercy, a wellspring of kindness for your own good. Then your acts will remove the barriers that blind you to the daily opportunities for repairing the broken realities of our time.  

Now go and do what you do -— et ha-chesed — with kindness!