Parshat Ekev 5776
Rabbi Meir Sendor
We met this week with the Chief Rabbi of Tzfat, Rav Shmuel Eliyahu, shlit”a. Since we have moved to Tzfat to teach in his jurisdiction, it was the thing to do, to introduce ourselves and get his blessing for our projects. The meeting was facilitated by good friends.
Rav Shmuel is warm and genuine and down-to-earth, and it was a very cordial meeting. He is also wise and savvy, reflected in the blessing and advice he gave us. He said that to make Aliyah is to be reborn, and like a child you should let yourself absorb the Land of Israel around you. Breathe the air. Feel the Land fill your body. Open yourselves to meeting new people, all kinds of people, non-religious as well as religious. Even a regular person on the street is remarkable and has a story. If they have served in Tzaha”l, the Israel Defense Forces, they have risked their life for Am Yisrael. The subtext of the Chief Rabbi’s message to us was clear. You think you are coming to the Land of Israel to teach. Before you can teach you need to learn. You need to put yourself aside, listen carefully, find out what’s going on here and learn from everyone around you.
As one of our seasoned Olim from the Young Israel of Sharon, Morry Stone, said to me to prepare us for coming: “I’ll give you the mantra of the Oleh Hadash: ‘I know nothing. I know nothing. I know nothing.’”
This is also the essential message of Moshe Rabbenu in this week’s Torah portion. Moshe describes the process of Aliyah in a series of verses. HaShem will bring you into the good Land, a land of rivers and springs flowing from mountains and valleys. It’s a land of abundant food and strong materials for building. So eat, be satisfied and bless God for this good Land He has given you. But beware that you not become arrogant and forget God and His mitzvot. Beware lest you think “my strength and the power of my hand have accomplished for me this valor (Dt. 8:6-18).”
This warning doesn’t just apply to Aliyah, it’s an existential warning with radical implications. David HaMelekh says in Tehillim 100:3:
דעו כי יקוק הוא אלהים הוא עשנו ולא ולו אנחנו עמו וצאן מרעיתו
This verse contains a ketiv u-kri, a Masoretic device in which a word in the Tana”kh is written one way but pronounced another. Often this involves a subtle change of vowels and pronunciation. In this case, the vowels are different, but the pronunciation is the same: from ולא to ולו. What changes is the meaning of the word and the verse. So this verse can be understood two ways. It is written: “know that HaShem is God, He made us and we did not, His nation and the sheep He shepherds.” It is read: “know that HaShem is God, He made us and we are His, His nation and the sheep He shepherds.” This psalm is included in the daily weekday liturgy, the Psalm of Thanksgiving. Many siddurim don’t even bother including the written form of the verse – perhaps they consider the statement too obvious to even mention, so they blow right by it. But the Masorah preserves this text for a reason, a profound reason, as R. David Kimchi in his commentary points out:
והכתוב הוא ולא באל”ף, ופירושו שלא נוכל לומר כחנו ועוצם ידינו עשה לנו את החיל הזה. הגאון רב סעדיה פירש ולו אנחנו היפך ואני עשיתני
(יחזקאל כט, ג):
The text has “and [we did] not” with an aleph. The meaning is that we cannot say our strength and the power of our hands accomplished for us this valor. Rabbi Sa’adiah Gaon explained that this is the opposite of “I made myself (Ez. 29:3).”
The verse as written might seem obvious, but try giving it some sustained thought and carry it all the way through. God made me; I did not. This means we have done nothing at all to bring ourselves here, into this world. We just find ourselves here, infinitely and absolutely here, but we have done nothing to make this happen. Not only have we not created the world and our own bodies and their marvelous already-working systems, but we have not created consciousness or our ability to think or perceive or feel or understand or sense ourselves as a consistent identity. It is all just happening and we have done nothing and do nothing to make it happen. We are held here, a gift to ourselves. And all we have to do to stay here for a while is continue to breathe, which is mostly automatic, and eat, drink and watch where we walk. Truly, “He made us and we did not.” And because of this, “He made us and we are His.” Literally, radically, through and through, and expressed with elegant economy that conveys the intrinsic connection.
This is Moshe’s message in our parsha. We have done nothing to bring ourselves here, here to the world, here to the Land of Israel. Beginning with this awareness, our first task is to listen carefully and pay attention to what is going on all around us. This leads us to appreciate that we, all we are and all we do, are gifts from God. And for one purpose: to be God’s agents. “And it shall be as a consequence of your listening to these judgments and you keep them and do them… (Dt. 7:12).” We are here to do God’s work in the world, through mitzvot that attune us and sensitize us to helping those in need, to asking what HaShem wants in every encounter and every moment of our lives and helping it happen.
למען ירבו ימיכם וימי בניכם על האדמה אשר נשבע יקוק לאבתיכם לתת להם כימי השמים על הארץ: ס
“That your days may be multiplied, and the days of your children, on the Land HaShem swore to your forefathers to give them, as the days of heaven upon the earth (Dt. 11:21).”