Milk and Honey

Parashat Ekev 5778

Meir Sendor

On a glorious sunny summer afternoon in Efrat our grandchildren who live in Israel, joined by our granddaughter visiting from New Jersey, took part in a community-wide Tzedakah project at a local ball field. Children from Efrat and the surrounding towns of Gush Etzion gathered for what they call a Shoko Run to raise money for a program that provides psychological, economic and social support for families in which a member is battling cancer or another serious illness. Nine- year old Azi Ginzberg came up with the idea based on an unlikely source: something called a Beer Mile. That’s somebody’s bright idea for a race in which contestants run a mile after drinking a twelve ounce cup of beer at the start and every quarter mile. In this case the beverage has been switched to Shoko, a chocolate milk drink that’s a favorite of Israeli children. The idea gets me nauseous just thinking about it. But the kids loved it, the field was packed and bustling with races of all kinds for all ages, and everyone had fun and kept their drinks down to the end, raising over forty thousand shekels in the process.

To combine the mitzvah of Tzedakah with love of the Land and food is so Israeli, and it also reflects the central theme of this week’s parashah. As Am Yisrael is about to enter the Land of Israel, Moshe paints a picture of the divinely-provided gifts they will find there – Land that is fertile and richly endowed with resources. But it has a special climate:

דברים פרק יא פסוק י- יב

כי הארץ אשר אתה בא שמה לרשתה לא כארץ מצרים הוא אשר יצאתם משם אשר תזרע את זרעך והשקית ברגלך כגן הירק: והארץ אשר אתם עברים שמה לרשתה ארץ הרים ובקעת למטר השמים תשתה מים: ארץ אשר יקוק אלהיך דרש אתה תמיד עיני יקוק אלהיך בה מרשית השנה ועד אחרית שנה:

For the Land to which you are coming to inherit is not like the land of Egypt from which you left, in which you sow your seed and water it with your foot like a vegetable garden. The Land you are passing over into to inherit is a land of mountains and valleys, drinking water from the rain of Heaven. It is a Land that HaShem your God inquires about, always the eyes of HaShem your God are upon it from the beginning of the year to the end of the year.

The Land of Israel, then as now, has an arid chaparral climate dependent on adequate rainfall, never guaranteed, which makes it ecologically delicate. This is one of its vulnerabilities, and a source of it blessings. As commentators such as R. Avraham Ibn Ezra, R. Ovadiah Seforno and R. Hizkiyah ben Manoach note, this sensitivity is not just physical, it’s moral. When Moshe says “always the eyes of HaShem are upon it,” he means God continually monitors the actions of its inhabitants to determine if they are worthy of rain and generous divine support. Today as well, thoughtful people recognize that ecological awareness is an issue of moral responsibility as well as biological utility. It’s expressed not only in the way we tend the environment, but how we care for others. Drawing proof from our parashah, Rabbi Yochanan in the Gemara Megillah notes that HaShem Himself models this ethical sensitivity:

 תלמוד בבלי מסכת מגילה דף לא עמוד א

אמר רבי יוחנן: כל מקום שאתה מוצא גבורתו של הקדוש ברוך הוא אתה מוצא ענוותנותו; דבר זה כתוב בתורה ושנוי בנביאים ומשולש בכתובים. כתוב בתורה – כי ה’ אלהיכם הוא אלהי האלהים ואדני האדנים, וכתיב בתריה עשה משפט יתום ואלמנה.

Rabbi Yochanan says: every place that you find the power of the Holy One, blessed be He, you also find His humility. This is written in Torah, doubled in the Prophets and tripled in the Writings. In the Torah it is written: “for HaShem your God is God of Gods, Lord of Lords, the mighty, great, powerful and awesome…” and after it is written: “He judges for the orphan and the widow, and loves the stranger to provide for him bread and clothing (Dt. 10:17-19).”

The verse that immediately follows makes clear that this is a quality we should emulate:

דברים פרק י פסוק יט

ואהבתם את הגר כי גרים הייתם בארץ מצרים:

And you shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

As opposed to the way power is used for brutal domination over others in most of the nations around us, the Torah vision is that true power is expressed in the most sensitive and solicitous care for the weak and vulnerable. Moshe recounts the long, hard road we have traveled, through Egyptian enslavement and forty years of wandering a dangerous and inhospitable wilderness, all to learn to be caring and hospitable to those in need. It’s on the basis of this moral education and training that we earn the privilege of living in our morally responsive Land:

דברים פרק יא פסוק ח פסוק ט

ושמרתם את כל המצוה אשר אנכי מצוך היום למען תחזקו ובאתם וירשתם את הארץ אשר אתם עברים שמה לרשתה:

ולמען תאריכו ימים על האדמה אשר נשבע יקוק לאבתיכם לתת להם ולזרעם ארץ זבת חלב ודבש:

And you shall observe all the mitzvot I command you this day, in order that you take hold and come and inherit the Land you are passing over to inherit. And in order that you lengthen your days on the Land HaShem has sworn to your forefathers to give to them and their descendants, a Land flowing with milk and honey.

The real emphasis of Torah learning and mitzvah practice is not just about punctilious ritual performance. Ritual practice itself serves to attune us to being alert and careful to attend to the needs of others in detail with an awake conscience. As Rabbi Yisrael Salanter says:

במה שנוגע לעצמו יש לאדם לבכר את הנשמה על הגוף, ואילו במה שנוגע לזולת, אין לוותר על הגוף, באשר צרכי הגוף של חברו הם ענייני הנשמה של עצמו”

With regard to oneself one should give priority to the soul over the body, but with regard to others do not relinquish the claim of the body, for the physical needs of your friend are the issues of your soul (Tenuat ha-Mussar, vol. 1, 281).

The ultimate purpose of Torah life is to cultivate a nation of ethically awake people living in an ethically responsive Land, caring for each other and all HaShem’s creatures, a model for all humanity.

As the children ran around the ball field of Efrat, I could not help but think of a young man we knew from Sharon, Massachusetts who was murdered by a terrorist two and a half years ago on the road to Efrat a short distance away. Ezra Schwartz, zekher Kadosh livrakhah, would have loved to be helping out in a project like this, combining mitzvot, sports and food – with his boundless energy, open heart and irrepressible sense of fun, enthusiastically encouraging and guiding young children in a sports activity for Tzedakah. On the way to Rosh Tzurim in Gush Etzion, there is a promenade established in memory of the three young men, Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaer, and Eyal Yifrah, zekher Kedoshim livrakhah, murdered nearby by terrorists in the summer of 2014, and a lookout in memory of Ezra called Ezra’s Lookout. This Friday at 9:00 am we will be holding a Tal Orot meditation session at Ezra’s Lookout in Ezra’s memory, with our Efrat meditation group, be-ezrat HaShem, a meditation affirming the power of life.

Yes, an afternoon of fund-raising for Tzedakah on a ball field flowing with chocolate milk and honey of gemilut chesed is what earns us the conditional privilege, not entitlement but privilege, to live in this amazing Land.

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