Eikev 5780

By: Ron Steiner

What is the scariest word in the English language?  This question was posed to me several years ago by a friend and colleague who often presented striking verbal and visual images.  His answer was “unless.” What might your answer be?

I’ve thought about this question off and on in the intervening years and though I’m not 100% sure of my answer, I’m leaning towards the word “deserve.”  This word serves a devilish purpose in advertising, attempting to convince people that they may not “need” the product or service being offered but since they “deserve” it, well, then nothing should stand in their way!

In parsha Eikev, it’s almost as though G-d, through Moses, is saying “if you do what I say, you’ll get what you deserve.”  He points out that other nations haven’t obeyed, and they got what they deserved. But those nations already got what they deserved, while the promised fruits of our good behavior remain elusive. G-d lost his temper with the Jews, when we crafted the golden calf as well as other times, but G-d listened to Moses’ pleas, spared his people, and gave us yet another second chance.  How many was that for us?  Did we deserve that grace? Why did we deserve yet another chance?

I also often wonder if what I think I deserve is what others believe that I deserve.  A phrase I told my daughters is that “luck is when preparation meets opportunity.  And the only aspect of that which you can control is preparation.  So be well prepared and you’ll find yourself lucky.”  Similarly, when people hear my girls play the violin, they usually say something along the lines of “Oh! They’re so talented.”  I take exception to that because giving the credit to talent takes away from the hours and hours of work and practice and preparation that went into the performance.  They don’t play well because of talent any more than they got lucky to get a good job; they prepared and put in the time and that’s the case whether or not outsiders view them as talented, lucky, or getting more (or less) than they deserve.

In the parsha, we are warned to be obedient so we get what we deserve but that may or may not be what we think we deserve.  How the outside world views someone and their accomplishments and how that may differ from your own view was brought home to me recently when I heard a story, perhaps apocryphal, about the origin of the Nobel Prize.

The namesake of the international prize was Alfred Nobel.  It so happened that in 1888, Alfred’s brother, Ludvig, died.  Thanks to poor reporting, at least one French newspaper believed that it was Alfred who had perished though he didn’t die until 1896.  The newspaper proceeded to write a scathing obituary that branded him a “merchant of death” who had grown rich by developing new ways to “mutilate and kill.” The error was eventually corrected, but not before Alfred had the unpleasant experience of reading his own, unflattering, death notice. The incident may have brought on a crisis of conscience and led him to reevaluate his career. According to biographer Kenne Fant, Nobel “became so obsessed with his posthumous reputation that he rewrote his last will, bequeathing most of his fortune to a cause upon which no future obituary writer would be able to cast aspersions.”

What sort of obituary might be written about us today?  Is it what we deserve, what we think we deserve, or what others might think we deserve?

During this whole fifth book of the Torah, Moses guides us towards Israel, towards the way of G-d, and towards what we deserve.  He knows he won’t see the promised land (the question of whether or not he deserved that particular punishment is a topic for another day) yet he beseeches us to behave and trust in G-d that we will ultimately get all that we deserve.  This parsha has such weight that the second paragraph of the Shema is found in it.

I had a lot of questions while reading this parsha:  Do we modern Jews deserve the land of Israel?  Did we deserve the Shoah?  Why does G-d, through Moses, painfully recount all of our failings as a people yet he simultaneously continues to urge us to do better?  Why does G-d often threaten punishment and then seem to relent?  That’s no way to earn respect as a leader or as a parent.

If we smoke or eat unhealthy food, are we disrespecting the body G-d gave us, meaning that we deserve the health consequences of those poor decisions?  If we don’t take care of our planet, do we deserve the consequences of those poor decisions?  Is that a cynical view of G-d or a pragmatic one?

I guess in the end, like so much of our faith, it boils down to just that… faith.  A leap of faith perhaps, or blind faith (though I’d like to think not).  We persevere in our daily lives, doing our level best, in the hopes that we’ll get at least what we deserve, if not better.

Shabbat Shalom.

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