On Eikev: Whose Behavior Should We Emulate? by Ivy Helman

The Torah portion for 20 August is Eikev, or Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25.  Eikev describes the importance of spirituality in one’s life and proscribes the actions of spiritually-attuned people.  The portion returns time and again to whom one should be spiritually connected: the deity, a jealous, angry, and fierce warrior who freed the Israelites from Egyptian slavery.  Yet, if we look closely at the language of Eikev, there is a disconnect between this warrior imagery, other language in Eikev about the divine, and how the spiritually-attuned should behave.  It is as if there are two understandings of divine nature here, and they are at odds with one another. In spite of itself, the language of the parshah decidedly favors a more feminist understanding of the divine.

Let us begin by looking at what Eikev says about spirituality.  Deuteronomy 8:3 asserts that one needs not just bread to live, but connection to the divine as well.  In other words, humans have concrete material needs that are extremely important.  However, there is also more to life than just the material.  

But, to whom is one supposed to spiritually connect?  It cannot be denied that there is a lot of language in Eikev that refers to the deity as a fierce warrior, quick to anger, whose principle act was freeing the Israelites from slavery.  A typical example of this language can be found in verse 7:19.  “The great trials that your eyes saw, the signs, the wonders, the mighty hand, and the outstretched arm with which the L-rd, your G-d, brought you out. So will the L-rd, Your G-d, do to all the peoples you fear.”  The deity showed strength and power when rescuing the Isrealites from slavery and will not hestitate to bring low those who threaten them.  The deity is also often depicted as jealous and vengeful and quick to anger at Israelite misbehavior (9:7-8, 18, and 22).  It is even said in Eikev that the deity gave the Israelites the Land not because of their goodness but because of the wickedness of the Land’s inhabitants (9:4-5).  

Yet, in Eikev, one can read other passages in which that fierceness is overshadowed, where instead the deity displays love, care, and concern, and blesses the Israelites.  This model for the divine is considerably more feminist because, as I have explained in numerous other posts, it is definitively not based on a patriarchal model of anger, jealousy, or power-over others.* The main example of the juxtaposition between the angry, vengeful warrior deity and the loving, kind one is in Deuteronomy 8.  The deity both punishes and provides. But, in the end, divine care and concern outweigh more warrior-like behavior (verses 3-4), because despite the tests and trials, the people had food, water, their health, and clothing.   

There are other examples in Eikev that highlight the divine as care and acts of loving-kindness.  In Deuteronomy 7:13-14, we read about the many blessings the divine will bestow on the Israelites including fertility of the people and of the land.  People will not suffer disease in the land (7:15).  The deity makes sure to bring the Israelites to a good land with water, hills and valleys for mining and fertile fields for raising animals and planting crops and various fruit trees; no one will go hungry (8:7-10).  

Why does the deity do this?  Because of love.  The parshah’s second verse (7:13) says that the Israelites are blessed because of divine love for them.  The deity operates out of love for the stranger as well (10:18).  Love is also part of how the Israelites should behave.  They should love the divine (10:12, 11:1 and 22).  And, because they love the divine and the divine loves the stranger, they too should love the stranger (10:18-19).

This very much reminds me of the sentiments expressed in Leviticus.  We are to be holy like the divine is holy (Lev. 11;44-45 and 19:2).  Just sixteen verses later, we read “…Love your neighbour as yourself,” (19:18). However, in Eikev, there is a more immediate connection between who the divine is and how the Israelites should behave. As I have already mentioned above, one should love because the divine loves, do acts of loving-kindness because the divine does, shelter, clothe, feed, and so on.  Operating out of an understanding of the divine as angry, vengeful, jealous warrior would produce very different behavior, would it not?  

Spiritual connection and action go hand-in-hand.  Be holy for I am holy.  Love because I love.  Be kind because I am.  Take care of others as I have taken care of you.   This is Eikev’s message, one I think we should heed.

Ivy Helman, Ph.D.: A feminist scholar and faculty member at Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic where she teaches a variety of Jewish Studies, Feminist and Ecofeminist courses.  

*A partial list of my past blog posts that critique the patriarchal model of divinity as a jealous, fierce, angry warrior: Balak; Vayikr; Sh’lach; and Ha’azinu.

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