Friday, August 7, 2015

Eikev: Let Your Personal Experiences Guide You

Rabbi Ben Bag-Bag, an ancient rabbi from the Land of Israel, has one teaching in all of Jewish tradition attributed to him. He said of the Torah, “Turn it and turn it again, for everything is in it.” From this we learn that every time we read the Torah we come to it with new eyes, even those portions we have read and re-read over and over again. Each time we study Torah we will notice something new and learn something we had never thought about before. This happened to me this week when looking at our weekly portion. I noticed a verse that jumped out to me in a way that it never had before.

Parashat Eikev teaches us about the obligation that the Jewish people has to learn and to live by God’s teachings and the rewards that come with that. We are warned, yet again that failure to observe the commandments will result in punishments from God, while also being reminded that loving God and living by God’s guidelines will result in good fortune and security in the promised land, the land of Israel. Much of the wording and sentiments in the parasha are quite familiar and echo what we have been taught in other portions and what we know of Jewish tradition. Yet in the midst of the familiar, one injunction stands out as seemingly contrary to what we have come to expect. Moses tells the people:

“Take thought this day that it was not your children, who neither experienced nor witnessed the lesson of the Lord your God…but that it was you who saw with your own eyes all the marvelous deeds that the Lord performed.” (Deuteronomy 11: 2-7)

This focus on the current generation - that it was them who experienced God’s marvels and instruction, not their children - is surprising as we are generally accustomed to the idea that what happened to our ancestors in the desert happened to us all. At our Passover Seders we prompt ourselves “chayav adam lirot et atzmo k’ilu hoo yatza mi Mitzrayim,” that we are obligated to see ourselves as if we personally were freed from Egypt, and that we experienced Gods wonders. When we read about the revelation of the Torah at Mt. Sinai we learn that the instruction was not given solely to those who were in attendance, but also to those who were not physically at Mt. Sinai, including future generations. This has led to the age old Jewish image that we were all present at Sinai.

Yet here, in Eikev, in Deuteronomy, Moses’ final sermons to the Israelite people, reviewing and repeating the rest of the Torah, here Moses stresses that he is not appealing to the people on the basis of another generation’s experience, but their own. Instead of asserting the importance of collective memory that is at the core of Jewish peoplehood, here it is one specific group, one generation that is tasked with remembering and understanding all that transpired and to use said experience as their impetus for adhering to God’s commandments and loving God. 

What, then, does this instruction mean for their children? What does it mean for future generations?

We learn in this instance that past lessons serve as motivation for our future actions. We learn that we can only act based on what we know, what we’ve learned and experienced in our lives. Yet we also learn that our experiences contribute to who we are and how we interact with  connect to the world around us. 

Therefore, it is incumbent upon each of us to utilize our own experience to deepen our love of God and our connection to Jewish tradition. It is incumbent upon us to apply our life experiences to our Jewish lives and to make our own contributions to tomorrow’s tradition and culture. And it is further incumbent upon us to pass on what we know to our children so that they may learn and experience the world in their own way, putting their own stamp on the future of our people.

This Shabbat may we be open to noticing, experiencing, and understanding all that life has to offer. May we see the world and all that is in it in a new way. And may we let our own experiences help us to deepen our connections to each other and to our shared tradition.

Shabbat Shalom!