Tag Archives: Hardship

Parshat Bechukotai (2012)

Parshat Bechukotai (2012)
Leviticus 26:3–27:34

Answering the Question: “Why did G-d make this happen to me?”

And you will flee when no one is pursuing you” (וְנַסְתֶּם וְאֵין רֹדֵף אֶתְכֶם, Lev. 26:17) – we become overwhelmed by our own sense of paranoia. Instead of being driven out, we run ourselves off from a state of blessing by our own guilt, shame and fear of repercussions of our actions.

With this weeks parsha we are completing the Book of Leviticus. This year this parsha is paired together with Parshat Behar as a double-parsha. This entire book of Leviticus has been related to the establishment of the Miskhan (the Tabernacle) and detailing the service and expectations that was laid upon the people of Israel. As we start this parsha we notice that all of a sudden the tone switches from talking about the responsibilities of the nation, to stating what the benefits and consequences of adherence to the Torah’s commandments are.

This parsha is quite short, less than two complete chapters in it’s entirety. And the aliyot (the individual readings) are also quite short as well. Normally people would be thrilled that they have a shorter section to learn to lein (Yiddish meaning cantillation, read in its proper melody from the Torah scroll), but this is not an easy reading. The sections that detail the curses and judgments are most often read by the most competent reader, because according to our tradition it is to be delivered in a very different fashion from any other Shabbat Torah reading; it is to be read in a whispering tone, and as quickly as possible. We read it this way in order to not arouse or incite judgment, and so that we do not dwell on negativity.

Though the differences become apparent even before the reading begins. Normally being called up to the Torah is the greatest honor one can have. In our tradition we are so repulsed by the idea of leveling judgment against people that the person who is called up to read these sections of curses does not allow themselves to be customarily called up by name to honor them for their reading. No matter how “qualified” one is in Torah learning, we are never to take pride in being associated with the calamity that befalls someone for their wrongdoing.

The world-over it is the general custom of the religious leaders to make themselves famous for preaching fire and brimstone. People literally yelling from the rooftops, with great satisfaction in themselves, all the ways that one can be harmed and punished. But here when it comes to delivering the tragedy of punishment we as Jews are not allowed to raise our voices, nor are we to linger upon the suffering of the sinner. We discuss it because we must, but G-d forbid that this happen to someone. We mildly and quickly get through this task as we take no joy in it.

The difficulty of reading this parsha though really is more in the message, more so than being an issue of skill. It is especially difficult for the Jewish people because it really does seem to begin going through a point-by-point presentation of the sufferings Jews have experienced, even though this was written long before the expulsions and persecutions in exile.Sadly we know the Torah is right about this because it really happened, and so recently in our history that it pains people greatly still to this day in a very raw way. These things can happen, it’s a tragic truth. In light of this the discussion then naturally seems to lead to asking “why,” instead of debating the “if.”

But if we are to answer the question that is expressed as “Why did this happen? Did we really deserve this?” we must first deal with an even less sophisticated question that goes, “How can a good G-d do this? Why did He make this happen?” It’s almost seems like a fair question because the horrors in this parsha are so extreme it seems inconceivable that G-d would do these things to His people. The key error lies in the understanding of the words “do” and “make,” implying such calamity is the work of G-d.

But unsophisticated questions tend to demand equally ill-formed answers. The way the gentile nations have generally answered this question is by turning to polytheism, good gods do good and bad gods cause evil. Their attempts at monotheism are still even colored through this perception, in which evil is personified in “the devil.” However, as Jews we are not permitted this luxury of dualism. We are challenged to have to deal with G-d’s role in all this because the scriptures clearly tell us that both good and evil are caused by Him alone. We read in book of Isaiah the profound declaration:

“From the rising of the sun and from the west

there is nothing besides Me

I am Hashem, there is nothing else.

I form light and create darkness,

makes peace and creates evil;

I Hashem do all these things.”

| “Mimez’rach shemesh umima’aravah

| ki-efes bil’adai:

| ani Hashem v’ain od

| yotzer or uvorei chosech,

| oseh shalom uvorai ra;

| ani Hashem oseh kol eyleh”

Isaiah 45:6-7

Traditional Judaism has always maintained this understanding of G-d, because logic naturally dictates that if G-d is omnipotent (all powerful) then everything must be ordered by Him alone. However, orthodoxy is neither naïve nor trite. It does not place G-d in the position of a tit-for-tat enforcer nor does it over simplify the nature of individual suffering, our tradition can’t because the scriptures do not suggest this at all.

I don’t want to spend too much time on this point, because it really is basic Judaism; but something I can go into volumes with. Verse 7 above is paraphrased as part of our liturgical reading of the morning, it is said daily as part of the blessings to the Shema (our most holy confession). We recognize that G-d creates the world daily. G-d is active in the world, not in just some distant point in history but still today and everyday renewing the act of creation. However this is a distinct difference between what is formed and made, and that which is merely created. In the void He formed the world, fashioning it; G-d made the universe. And when He formed it He created it in a balanced state of fullness and light, He provided everything that was needed to sustain that world. However, evil and woe are like darkness. They not necessarily a thing, it’s the void and aftermath that is left as a result in the breakdown of the proper function and order in our lives. Other times its just a the absence of the good stuff getting to that place yet. There are two lessons in that: 1) that just like life has good times, there are also bad times, 2) woe and hardship are not a formulated response, but merely the unfortunate result of things not going according to ordered plans.

G-d as creator made us to function well, under good and optimum circumstances just like any good designer would. G-d created this world as a brilliant form of craftsmanship, with all the features and accessories needed to help us get the job done. For us to be mad when life breaks-down is like being upset with a manufacturer because our plans for using their product didn’t pan out or we just didn’t use it properly. It isn’t realistic or proper for us to look at the world that way. The responsibility of the Divine was to give us the best chance in real situations, not to vow to save us against from every possible annoying fluke.

When we comprehend that, then we can be a bit more adult in our ways of looking at the words “do” and “make.” G-d doesn’t do anything to us, any more than He makes us do anything; those are very childish words if we use them in this tone. Instead G-d takes responsibility in being the creator who created us to function best when in line with His instructions. He should not been seen as a manufacturer who is designing a product to blow up in our faces at the first wrong step.

So in this mentality G-d nonetheless takes responsibility. He stands behind His product, disclosing what it takes for it to perform properly and warning us of how to troubleshoot when things go wrong. Because things most certainly do have a habit of going wrong at some point, that is the nature of life.

Troubleshooting Life

Do you need to troubleshoot life? I know I do, and often. Any of you who have ever worked for a help-desk know troubleshooting skills not just requires the knowledge of the complex, but also attention to the subtle. The range of what someone points to as “wrong” can span from a total malfunction to merely just someone’s baseless dissatisfaction.

One of the first tedious parts of troubleshooting is to have to go over the instructions. Are we doing everything that we are supposed to do in order to get the appropriate results? Our text explains to us as follows:

“And if you do not listen to Me,

and do not do all these commandments,

and if you grow tired of My orders

and if you loath My laws

so that you will not do all My commandments

and thus break My covenant,

after that I will make this to happen to you…”

| V’im lo tish’mu li;

| v’lo ta’asu et kol ha mitzvot ha’eileh

| v’im bechukotai tim’asu

| v’im et mishpatai

| tig’al nafshechem l’vilti asot et kol mitvotai

| l’hafrecheim et briti,

| Af ani ei’eseh zot lachem

Leviticus 26:14-16a

The Torah warns us if we do not abide by all these ways we are breaking our “terms of service agreement.” If we do this we are gonna break our lives! No really, look at the text again. It first wants to make sure that we understand the seriousness of what we are doing.

Then the text goes into explaining what to look out for, the warning signs of malfunction:

“I will appoint upon you panic;

with consumption and fever,

and I will completely destroy your sight,

and make you depressed,

and you will sow your seed in vain,

and your enemies will eat it.


And I will set my face against you

and you will be defeated before you enemies;

and you will flee

when no one is pursuing you

| V’hifkadeti aleichem behalah

| et ha’mishachepet ve’et hakadachat

| m’chalot einaim,

| umedivot nafesh;

| uz’ra’tem larik zar’achem

| va’achaluhu oi’veichem.


| V’natati panai bachem,

| v’nigaf’tem lifnei oi’veichem;

| v’radu vachem son’eichem

| v’nas’tem v’ain rodeif at’chem

Leviticus 26:16b-17

The first troubles that the Torah presents us with as signs of judgment are subtle and mild, but can easily be mistaken for something else all together.

This first wave of curses is very perplexing and even troublesome. What are we saying about G-d; that He causes us to have panic, depression and such? Are we saying that G-d takes control of our emotions in order to wreck them? And these inflictions, are we suggesting that G-d causes illness in us?

In our tradition the points of free-will and the fairness of such a course of actions is not even an issues to grapple with. The Rambam interprets Midrash Rabba concerning creation to be surmised in the idea that “only good descends from G-d above.” (Rambam, Guide For The Perplexed, III:X; concerning Midrash Rabba Chapter 1, p. 266). When G-d creates He makes everything good, just as we read in the creation story the continual phrase is used “and G-d saw all that He created and behold it was good.” And we firmly believe G-d does not give illness nor does He impose on our emotions. How can it be that here we have G-d being described as causing both physical and mental inflictions?

The Rambam, as a physician, gave us a unique perspective in how to interpret this. In fact he gives us one of the only interpretations from among the classics that we have to examine. That is not to say the commentators didn’t deal with these verses, they wrote lengthy commentary on these sections. However, they could only give us a description of what the symptoms were. The Rambam was more concerned with what the cause was. As a physician he realized that in order to bring remedy we must first recognize the cause, as a condition is not merely a set of symptoms that need to be alleviate. The symptoms of illness are merely a reflection of the extent to which disease has advanced.

As pointed out the world was created “good,” and in fact when all the living creatures were created He declared that everything was “tov me’od / very good;” (Genesis 1:31). He created life and the world good, and then some. Nonetheless as we have learned from Isaiah, G-d does say that He causes ra – harm, evil, and calamity. However, as the Rambam point out early on in the Guide, things such as good and evil are only descriptions in relations to something. He says this is like saying “round” or “flat.” Not either physical property is good or bad necessarily, it is just a description of how we perceive something. How it looks to us. Such words are very similar in meaning and relation to the terms emet and sheker; true and false. It’s a description and qualification, not a judgment or characterization.

The Rambam explains to us that this similarly can also be applied to the words oseh and bara; makes and created. When G-d created to world He created, meaning he made something from nothing. There was nothing, no universe or anything to function. Then He created the world purposefully, everything He made has a function. He points out that that G-d also created things such as the mouth, eyes and ears so that we can speak, see, and hear. Though the Rambam points out the following verse to demonstrate his philosophical view of what happens when something goes wrong in this natural world:

“And Hashem said to him:

Who places a mouth in man,

or who makes one mute,

or deaf

or see

or blind;

I Hashem.”

| Vayomer Hashem elav

| mi sam peh la’adam

| o mi-yasum ilem

| o cheresh

| o fike’ach

| o iver halo

| anochi Hashem.

Exodus 4:11

The Rambam explains that this verse teaches that each of the body parts were created for their function. That when the function is withheld it merely means that the body part doesn’t work properly, we don’t jump to the odd suggestion that a person must not have a mouth if they can’t talk, or eyes if they can’t see, nor ears if they can’t hear. But that G-d as maker of those body parts is the one who takes responsibility for the issue as He is he only thing in the universe, He is solely its creator, there is no one else to blame; He is responsible by default and does not shirk that in any way. Then He sums it up with “I am Hashem,” its okay to hold Me responsible; I’m big enough to take it.

But if we consider it, the above mentioned maladies are examples of things that are not necessarily inflictions, but withholding of an appropriate function; example, He gave a mouth but didn’t give the speech. We need to see the terrible things mentioned in our parsha as a mere result of G-d withholding blessing – and not necessarily imposing a causative and active role of punishment. He just isn’t providing what we need for our lives to work right. Nachon, got it?

Not Being Run Out: Sometimes we run from blessing, instead of being driven

I know I have kept you for a long study, with me ranting on. But it is very important for us to look at the symptoms, the characteristics of these maladies caused by us not living properly and according to the rules set out for our lives in Torah. And by looking at them we will also see that they are really things that have their root more in us than in G-d. They are:

Panic (בֶּהָלָה) – literally fear, and sudden terror. Panic and terror will begin to consume you. One will begin to be overcome by fear and frenzy.

Consumption (הַשַּׁחֶפֶת) – literally wasting disease and emaciation. One’s health looks swept away, they being to look anguished. Rashi says this means consumption of the face, so that one begins to look sad in the face due to wasting. People often used this term historically to describe illnesses like tuberculosis, wasted away and pained to that point.

Fever (הַקַּדַּחַת) – this is very simple to understand, it simple means fever, and the results of sever illness like malaria. But the Radak tells us this can be understood as “fire in the bones;” that is how intense the effects are. Rashi also sees this connotation, and says furthermore it can be understood as being fired up to the point one is enraged, and furious (citing Deut. 32:22) The fire inside, be it in our body or emotions, burns too hot and to our detriment. Fever like fury can overwhelm a person to the point of an overwhelming trembling and loss of control over their functions and composure.

Destroy your sight (מְכַלּוֹת) – G-d will allow our outlook to be destroyed. (Rav Hirsch) We begin to experience impairment of our faculties. As we look into our future all we will see is uncertainty and doubt, which leads to the next infliction…

Depression (וּמְדִיבֹת) – we will become overwhelmed by feelings of hopelessness (Rav Hirsch). We will be overcome by debilitating depression and sorrow.

The parsha continues on describing other things that are less easily understood as being rooted in our own defect; that we will sow in vain, our enemies will reap from our hard work instead of us. But in the last clauses of verse 17 we see G-d does have a undeniable hand in all of this, because He sets His attention towards us and yet we are defeated by our enemies. G-d watches on, as we fall into calamity; not coming to our aid.

But before we get carried away and try to relieve ourselves of responsibility the Torah continues and shows a truly tragic truth of what happens when we live a life outside of Torah blessing, we aren’t run out from blessing; quite to the contrary.

And you will flee when no one is pursuing you (וְנַסְתֶּם וְאֵין רֹדֵף אֶתְכֶם) – we become overwhelmed by our own sense of paranoia. Instead of being driven out, we run ourselves off from a state of blessing by our own guilt, shame and fear of repercussions of our actions.

In the end, the yeridah – the descent and fall into bondage and foreign oppression is of our own doing. Often times we aren’t carried away, no one forces us out of a place of peaceful living; we are so haunted and hunted by our avoidance of our Torah responsibilities that we run from ourselves until we find we are not longer free to return on our own terms. It further describes this type of paranoia in verses 36-37, that we will become overwhelmed by insecurity, that even the rustling leaves will send us running in fright, like being chased by a sword though no one is there; that we are so overcome by our invisible fears that we, and those that accompany our descent, stumble over each other; running from insecurities rooted in our own conscience.

Luckily, the story doesn’t end there. Though there are all kinds of unspeakable things displayed for us as hardships for improper living and not honoring the Torah, G-d still holds out to us a hand of mercy. Though we might get worse, and worse, and worse yet the more we run from ourselves; in the end G-d says that He will not just write us off. No, instead He declares that no matter how far we run, He is intent on setting us right in the end; not to leave us ultimately to our disrepair.

“Yet even after all that, even

when they are in the land of their enemies

I will not reject them, nor abhor them,

nor grow tired of them

and then break my covenant with them –

for I am Hashem, your G-d


But I will for their sakes remember

the covenant of their ancestors,

whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt

in the sight of the nations,

that I might be their G-d:

I am Hashem.”

| Ve’af-gam-zot

| biheiotam be’eretz oiveihem

| lo-me’astim velo-ge’altim

| lechalotam

| lehafer briti itam

| ki ani Hashem Eloheihem.


| Vezacharti lahem

| brit rishonim

| asher hotzeti-otam me’eretz Mitzrayim

| le’einei hagoyim

| lihiot lahem le-Elohim

| ani Hashem

Leviticus 26:44-45

Though G-d does not write us off, and promises to ultimately grant redemption to use all, liberating us eventually; it does not necessarily say this life, though. It is true that all Israel has a share in the world to come (Pirkei Avot). But ignoring Torah has consequences. G-d does not cast people out of His kingdom for their humanity and faults; He will make a place for us all, in a way only He understands. It will come about by Him remembering His promise and the merit of our ancestors. This should comfort us. But on the other hand we should be a bit saddened by this explanation; because the truth is the suffering and being run amok could end at any time if we just decided to remember His covenant and the meritorious lives displayed by our Jewish ancestors.

Parshat Vayeitzei (2011)

Parshat Vayeitzei
Genesis 28:10 – 32:3

How the Scattering of the Jews is Actually a Blessing

“And your seed shall be as

the dust of the earth

and you will spread abroad to the west,

and to the east,

and to the north,

and to the south,

and in you and in your seed

shall all the families of the earth

be blessed.”

| Vehayah zar’acha

| ka’afar ha’aretz

| ufaratzta yamah

| vakedmah

| vetzafonah

| vanegbah

| venivrechu vecha

| kol-mishpechot ha’adamah

| uvezar’ech

Genesis 28:14

Hand Scattering Seeds

Are we being scattered to the wind, or being spread for a purpose?

Recently I have done a lot of talking about the importance of Israel and my feelings about the Promised Land, the Jewish homeland. In the previous verse, in G-d’s first line of dialogue that He makes to Jacob He explains the reason we are going to dwell in Israel with the words “I will give to you and your descendants the land upon which you are lying.” (v.13) He explains to us that we will live in our land because He gave it to us and our descendants to do just that.

Now in this verse (v.14) G-d seems to explain why we are going to dwell in exile among the nations. Interesting He starts out with the words “you and your seed shall be like the dust of the earth.” We see this phrase also used when the promise is made to Abraham; that his descendants would be like the specks of dust of the earth, too many to count (Gen. 13:16).

And then G-d makes a second point, not only would we be numerous but we would be paratz, which the Bible translators generally translate as to be “spread abroad” or even “dispersed” or “scattered.”

There are two cases where this word is use in the same form. This is noted by Rashi, one instance is here and the other is in Exodus 1:12 in regard to Egyptian tyranny, “v’ka’asher y’anu oto ken yirbeh yif’rotz / but the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and the more they gained strength.” This meaning is based off the Aramaic Targum.

Rashi is telling us that when we read this we should understand the phrase as saying “you shall gain strength to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south.”

Let’s looks at the context of Israel’s captivity in Egypt. The situation was one that they were afflicted and oppressed, however despite the severe cruelty and even being subjected to genocide they grew in number and in strength as a people. Their trials built them up as a nation and gave them the strength to endure. Nothing could be done to stop them from gaining in strength, as the situation grew harder so did they. They suffered first before they became great, this seems to be the nature with anything worth gaining.

This is even hinted at in the way that it gives the cardinal directions here. In the ancient world the primary cardinal direction was east. Up until recent time even in maps from the west the chart was oriented to face east (even the word orient, means east, suggesting you gain your bearings from the easterly direction), this is where we get our direction and even our wealth from. However the west, yamah, was really more of a direction of trouble. It was facing the direction of the sea (Heb. yam), and from this direction came the trouble of the Philistines, the Greek, the Romans, etc. It was not the choicest of direction to go in the ancient world, it was the direction of being exiled among the islands of sea. East, kedem, is more associated with kodam which means being progressive and welcoming. Think about it, the Europeans discovered the Americas on their desire to get to the wealth of the east by going the other way around. If you wanted success head east, not west was the common mentality through out the entire world, toward the direction of the sun and its bounty. But here it mentions the west first.

And then it mentions the north and then the south. The north was always associated with trouble too. As we would find in Jeremiah 1:14, “Out of the north the evil shall break forth upon all the inhabitants of the land.” Ever notice how here in America the moss grows on the north side of the tree, where there is less sun and it is cold? If you were to look at the sky over Israel, you would find that at all times of the year the sun appears in the southern half of the sky. So the bounty of the sun is also associated with the south. The sun appears hidden (Heb. tzafan) from the northern (tzafonah) part of the sky, so it is associated with the coldness and cruelty of nature; the north was a cold wasteland. As apposed to the warm places of Egypt, Yemen, India and all the places people went to in times of famine because of the abundance that were notorious in the south. But here we see the north mentioned first.

So I guess Rashi’s interpretation is appropriate, because we will be strengthened. Although when looked at in context it means strengthened by trials and hardship first before we get to the good stuff. We would endure struggle in the hard places first. Just as we exercise to build up the body we would be built up. Being among the nations enduring hardship has been for the purpose of building up our strength of character.

Galut: Like an Overflow for the Righteous

When most people read this verse “ufaratzta yamah vakedmah / and you will spread abroad to the west, and to the east…” they think more along the lines of being scattered. Our experience, as I have stated, is that Israel has always been promised success but with great hardship first. This was written into the stipulations from day one when pronounced even to Abraham. But I think the reality of the Jewish people being trapped in this part of the Promise has made us a bit cynical in the way we read the scriptures at time. A lot of people more easily read this verse as meaning “scattered” as though thrown to the mercy of the wind instead of spread out. Spread out sound neat like laying down a tablecloth, no the Jewish experience has not been that neat. We naturally see it, and even gentiles do, as us being scattered and tossed about. As though blown around like dust in the wind over the face of the planet.

However I think we don’t need to only read it this way. When we see the word paratz used in common speech it actually means to break out, or burst, or to erupt. In modern speech you would use it to begin to say that your bursting into tears or laughter. In either case it means to erupt like its not able to be contained. Lets look at a few examples though from the scriptures, in biblical Hebrew.

In Genesis 30:30 Jacob says to Laban that in his care the few cattle he had “vayifrotz l’rov,” became greatly abundant. Everywhere Jacob turned he was blessed we read and the flocks increased. So it can mean to increase in number.

In Job 1:10 we see the Satan talking about Job’s wealth and success at the start of his story saying to G-d, “You have blessed the works of his hands and his possessions have increased (paratz) in the land.” So here we see it can me to increase in possessions, in holdings (in this case the word used hints at herds of livestock, he was a big roller).

See so the use of the word is not all doom and gloom. In fact one of the best meanings is found in Proverbs 3:10, it is actually closer to the meaning people use on the streets everyday “v’yimal’u asamecha sava / So shall your barns be filled with plenty / v’tirosh y’kavecha yif’rotzu / and your vats shall overflow with new wine.”

The way I see it, most common use of the word is to overflow. Like a sack bursting at the seams. You cannot be contained so your spilling over. And this is what I think is one of the other reasons that Israel has been dispersed, so that we could increase. Today though we have our honorable home in Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel, we are still spilling into the world as though we are busting at the seams. Increasing in number and possessions. Becoming great as a people and in our dealing. We spill into the nations as though we cannot be contained.

Why would G-d want us to increase in exile, being dispersed among the nations? We might find a pretty good reason hinted at in 2 Chronicles 31:5, “And when the word burst forth (vki’farotz) the Children of Israel increased the first of corn, wine, oil, honey, and all the increase of the field, and the tithes of everything they brought in abundance.” We can also understand it as “came forth from abroad” (JPS), meaning to spread fast by rumor even before the official announcement gets there.

The world over, among all the nations, the fame of the success of the Jewish people granted to us by the grace of G-d is well known. Even places where few or even no Jews have ever been, the rumors and stories of our trials and our success are well known. If one knows nothing else about the Jews, the fact that we have suffered and yet still excel is known by almost all people on the earth.

So when I look at this scripture of course I acknowledge the great difficulty of exile which is present in the idea of being scattered through out the earth. But I also acknowledge the goodness of G-d who has sustained us and made us a mighty nation and caused us to increase and thus cannot be able to be contained in any one place. And through our trials and our success we have become an example to the nations of the strength of the human spirit and the faithfulness of our G-d. We carry this message with us everywhere we go, in all the lands we dwell as a living example of hope.

And in this, by offering hope through our unique experience with history and with our G-d we go on to fulfill the promise of “And in you and in your seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed.”

Parshat Eikev (2011)

Parshat Eikev
Deuteronomy 7:12-11:15

How trials bring out our true colors

Note: Right now I’m seriously ill. I strongly believe that we live the weekly parsha, if we look around we can find a message that fits so closely to what is going on in real life. This is one of those seasons where I really need this message, so I’m passing it on to all of you as well hoping you find strength in it too. This is a remix of a lesson I did many years ago while I was living in Mexico.

And it will happen that if you listen

to these laws

and safeguard them and keep them

Hashem, your G-d will safeguard for you

the covenant and the kindness the He swore

to your forefathers.”

| Vehaiah eikev tishme’un

| et hamishpatim ha’eleh

| ushmartem va’asitem otam

| veshamar Hashem Eloheicha lecha

| et-habrit ve’et-hachesed asher nishba

| la’avoteicha

Deuteronomy 7:12

The title of this weeks parsha is Eikev. Rashi points out that eikev literally means “because.” Though it must be noted that this one word has received an abundance of commentary because the use of this word is uncommon. The Ramban (Nahmanides) is among several Rabbis who understands this world to mean “as a reward, if.” Ibn-Ezra and others understand it as “as a final result, if.” The Septuagint renders it as “it will come to pass, if.”

One of the reasons for so much commentary is that it is clearly evident that this word is similar to the word akeiv, same spelling but different pronunciation, that means “heel.” Therefore I believe the word eikev is akin to the phrase “on the heels of…” meaning as a result of or pursuant of.

Rashi explains, expounding on the word eikev, that through juxtaposition of the word heel (akeiv) the meaning is hinted that if we are careful to observe the commands of Hashem even, the “minor” ones that’s so often people trample under the heel, that G-d would also be meticulously observant in keeping His promises to us.

The Nature of Trials

“Remember the entire path

along which Hashem your G-d led you

these forty years in the desert.

He sent hardships to test you,

to know what is in your heart

Whether you would keep His commandments or not.”

| Vezacharta et-kol-haderech

| asher holichecha Hashem Eloheicha

| zeh arba’im shanah bamidbar

| lema’an anotecha lenasotcha

| lada’at et-asher bilvavecha

| hatishmor mitzvotav im-lo

Deuteronomy 8:2

As difficult as the subject is I feel pulled to discuss the nature of difficulties and of trials in this life. The Rambam (Maimonides) in The Guide for the Perplexed states, “The doctrine of trials is open to great objections; it is in fact more exposed to objections than any other taught in scriptures.”

The first objections should be completely obvious to any critical thinker; why would an all-knowing G-d need to know what is in the heart of a person? G-d knows the hearts of all people, there is nothing outside of His awareness and consciousness. So why does it say “l’da’at / to know?”

The answer can be found in examining this text. It is in the context of the Children of Israel wandering in the wilderness. This was their testing ground. It is here in the desert wilderness that Hashem “sent hardships to test”. The word hardship (anotecha) means an affliction, it is based on the word inah which means to cause pain (in modern Hebrew it means “torture”). Here Moses is affirming that the trials that the People went through were in fact painful and anguish filled.

In order to understand what it means to “l’da’at / to know” we must first define what a trial is. The word used here for trial is nisah, it means; to try, tempt, test, or try out. It is generally understood that nisah means to put to the test in order to know the intentions. However nisah also means to try out how one will put something in practice. The same word, spelled the same way but pronounced differently, nooseh means to utilize experimentally, meaning to utilize in order to examine something through critical analysis as in a laboratory.

So how did G-d determine what was in the hearts of the Children of Israel? It says:

“He made life difficult for you,

letting you go hungry,

and then He fed you the Manna,

which you had never experieced

nor had your ancestors ever known.”

| Vayanecha

| vayar’ivecha

| vaya’achilcha et-haman

| asher lo-yadata

| velo yade’un avoteicha

Deuteronomy 8:3

Here we find the word da’at (to know) used here (in the phrase lo-yadata) as meaning experienced. This is appropriate because da’at means knowledge, wisdom, intellect, understanding, common sense, logic, awareness and consciousness.

However, we should be aware that to l’da’at means more than just to mentally understand, it means to physically know. Such as where we read that Adam knew his wife, it meant to know through physical intimacy. Hashem taught the people to depend on Him in a physical way in order for Him to provide an opportunity to show He provides. He didn’t want them to just merely think that the ways He placed before them worked, He wanted them to know on a deeply physical level so it took a physical need to demonstrate that. G-d was teaching them through experience, so that over time it would build their confidence.

Let us remove from our minds the idea that these trials were intended to inform G-d of anything. The trials Hashem placed upon the People were to 1) show them what they were made of, and 2) show others what they were made of. You see the Bachaya (Rabbi Bachaya Ibn Pachuda) understands the context of the word da’at in chapter 8 verse 2 to mean “to show others.”

Showing Our True Colors

Over the years I have learned a lot when it comes to the nature of hardship in life. First, in my own life; facing illness, poverty, homelessness, and emotional brokenness. Several years ago when I first was learning this lesson from the parsha I was living in Mexico. At times the poverty was extreme in the immigrant towns that it was beyond imagination. I had ample opportunity to see how people reacted under difficulty. It has been my observation that it is in times of hardship that people really show who they are and their true colors come out.

One day as I was learning this parsha an American came to me for help. He begins to tell me his story of how he came here to Mexico as a missionary and quickly acquired a day job, but fell on to financial hardship and for what ever reason lost his job that kept his family afloat. To make a long story short, I started hearing things from the locals about him. He had been asking for charity all over, showing that he had a 9 month old baby. Not only had he had turned to begging, but also to stealing and selling drugs. What’s even more shameful is out of generosity people would buy him a gallon of milk, for instance, and he would take it back to the store and return it and pocket the money. In his time of need instead of rising to the challenge he crumbled under the weight, and so did his reputation.

I have become of the opinion that in difficult situations is where people show the depth of their character; if they are inclined to theft, they will steal. If they are cruel, their cruelty will surface. But if they are honest and true at a heart level they will remain honest and true; even in face of adversity.

Our trials therefore are a testing ground, that everyone goes through without exception. So when we see a very similar verse in the next weeks parsha were it says G-d will “afflict you, testing you (meh’naseh) to know (l’da’at)” we should understand it as opportunities to show “whether you would keep His commandments or not.” (Deut 8:2) It’s easy to believe when everything is just peachy and comfortable, but how about in times of hurt and necessity? We need keep our personal values and not toss in the towel in the face of difficulty. The Torah tells us with a positive statement, knowing that we can do it, “You shall safeguard and perform them, for it is your wisdom and discernment in the eyes of the peoples, who shall hear all these decrees and who shall say, ‘Surely a wise and discerning people is this great nation!’ For which is a great nation that has a G-d Who is close to it, as is Hashem, our G-d, whenever we call to Him?” (Deut. 4:6-7) Our trials are the playing field upon which we win our honor and dignity. Furthermore, it shows with living and empirical evidence to others that the ways of Hashem are genuinely sufficient.

Let us examine another verse from Deuteronomy that shows this principal, by looking at another example of the word nisah, meaning trial or test. In Deut. 28:56 we read “The tender and delicate woman among you. Who has never tried to set her foot on the ground, because of delicacy and tenderness, will turn selfish and against the husband of her bosom, and against her son and daughter.” The words “never tried to” (lo nistah), mean to not be accustomed to. The context here is the descriptions of what happens in times of misery because the people have abandoned the ways of Hashem. It is a picture of someone who is unfamiliar with any form of hardship or complexity in their lives. That when things become difficult they lash out animalistically and completely reactionary; only in desperate desire for their own preservation.

Too often people who are too good to get their hands dirty in this world lose all their dignity when hardship comes their way. Individuals that are too cultured to be bothered with the everyday concerns of life often have no composure in times of distress.

JPS translates the words “lo nistah” as “would not adventure.” I like that a lot. What I wish to convey is that these trials in our lives are not so much tests, as they are adventures. They are for our growth and experience. There is nothing about this Torah, despite what people of some persuasions believe and preach, that is to show us what is impossible for us; but to show us what we are capable of. And as we begin to try out our legs on this adventurous path of life and we gain confidence through success we will love the Divine and life with all our heart and soul.

Truly the Children of Israel had the ultimate wilderness adventure. However we read in chapter 8 verse 4 “uraglecha lo batzeyka / your feet did not become bruised / zeh arabayim shana / these 40 years.” You see if we keep this Torah then the trials of this life will strengthen us, but not bruise us; they will harden our bodies with resistance, but not callus us.

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