Keyword:

Light from the Sidra

Ekev ('If you follow....')

Torah: Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25. Haftarah: Isaiah 49:14-51:3

The I of the storm

One of the great questions that occupy the minds of philosophers and theologians is whether we truly have Free Will. A few days ago I was talking to a young Orthodox Jew who told me that God offered his Torah (by which he meant the 613 commandments) and the nations rejected it because it was too hard for them to keep. Only Israel accepted the terms and conditions of the Torah and entered into covenant with Yahweh. The rest of us have only to keep the Noachide Laws, seven commandments defined by the rabbis as binding on all the descendants of Noah. The seven Noachide laws prohibit the worship of other gods, blaspheming the name of God, cursing judges, committing murder, incest and adultery, theft, and eating flesh with blood in it.

According to that understanding, God’s election of Israel was conditional on their willingness to accept his Torah. But when God called Abram in Ur of the Chaldees, he didn’t ask if he would be willing to leave his home and go to an unknown country; he told him to leave. He made promises to Abram concerning his descendants and their redemption from Egypt four hundred years before the Torah was given. And when he appeared to Israel at Sinai, there is no record of Yahweh asking them if they would like to accept his laws, precepts and commandments; he told them he had brought them out of the house of bondage and then commanded them to keep his Torah.

God’s election of Israel was unconditional but their enjoyment of all the blessings he had prepared for them in the promised land was conditional on their obedience. Israel’s track record of obedience, from what we see in Scripture, is to say the least unimpressive. He promised to give Abraham’s descendants the land but, in order to enjoy it, they had to be obedient.

Today’s Parasha is full of promise for Israel. It is full of incentives to keep Yahweh’s commandments. As king David recognised: ‘The teaching of the Lord is perfect, renewing life; the decrees of the LORD are enduring, making the simple wise . . . your servant pays them heed; in obeying them there is much reward’ (Ps. 19:8-12. Tanakh - The Holy Scriptures. The New JPS Translation According to the Traditional Hebrew Text. Jewish Publication Society, 1986)

‘Now it shall be: because of your hearkening to these regulations, keeping and observing (them), then YHWH will keep for you the covenant of loyalty that he swore to your fathers; he will love you, he will bless you, he will make-you-many . . . blessed shall you be above all peoples . . .’ (Dt. 7:12-14. Tanakh - The Holy Scriptures).

Fantastic! But the clear implication is that if Israel does not hearken to Yahweh’s regulations to keep and observe them is that he will not bless them and they will suffer, a theme that will develop throughout the book. And we know from the Bible and from the history of the last three-and-a-half thousand years how that all shook down.

Yahweh foresees the cause of Israel’s disobedience; they will forget him and what he has done for them. When they forget Yahweh their God, what will happen? They will turn to other gods, they will become self-righteous and they will become materialistic.

‘If you forget, yes, forget YHWH your God and walk after other gods . . . you will perish. . .’ (Dt.8:19. The Five Books of Moses. A New Translation with Introductions, Commentary and Notes. Everett Fox).

‘Take-you-care. Lest you forget YHWH your God, by note keeping his commandments, his regulations and his laws that I command you today, lest (when) you eat and are satisfied, and build godly houses and settle . . . that your heart become haughty and you forget YHWH your God . . .’ (Dt. 8:11-14. The Five Books of Moses).

 

Now should you say in your heart: My power and the might of my hand have produced all this wealth for me; then you must bear-in-mind YHWH your God, that he was the one who gave you power to produce wealth . . . (Dt. 8:17,18. The Five Books of Moses).

Atheism, materialism and self-righteousness appear to be mankind’s default settings and, as Rabbi Lionel Blue memorably quipped, ‘Jews are just like everyone else; only more so.’ which is why the Torah cautions the Jewish people (and the rest of us) about the danger of forgetting him. What is true for Israel is true for the rest of us: forget God and live for the big ‘I,’ and you are in big trouble.

We know from the Bible that Israel failed to follow Yahweh’s commandments but the Haftarah speaks of a servant of Yahweh who is everything God intended Israel to be. His ear is open and he gives heed to God; he is obedient but voluntarily suffers shame and pain: ‘I offered my back to the floggers, and my cheeks to those who tore out my hair, I did not hide my face from insult and spittle’ (Is. 50:6. Tanakh - The Holy Scriptures)

This righteous suffering servant can’t be Israel because in verse 10, God declares to the nation: ‘Who among you reveres the LORD and heeds the voice of his servant?—Though he walk in darkness and have no light, let him trust in the name of the LORD and rely upon his God’ (Is. 50:10. Tanakh - The Holy Scriptures).

Unlike Israel, whose ear had not been opened (see Is. 48:8) and who had not followed the instruction of Torah, the servant had responded perfectly to God’s will and instruction.

What of those who don’t heed the voice of the suffering servant of Yahweh? What of those in darkness who imagine they can create their own light? The Hebrew word for darkness is plural, indicating there is not even a gleam of light to help them see the path on which their self-sufficiency is taking them. So instead of obeying God’s servant they kindle torches. With disastrous results. 

 

Behold, all ye that kindle a fire, that gird yourselves with firebrands, begone in the flame of your fire, and among the brands that ye have kindled. This shall ye have of My hand; ye shall lie down in sorrow (Is 50:11. Jewish Publication Society translation).

Who is that servant? Although Rashi believed the servant was a reference to the prophets, none of the prophets (not even Isaiah) demanded that the people listen to his words. Their words had authority only because they spoke the word of God. But 700 years after Isaiah’s prophecy, one greater than a prophet declared to Israel: ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’

Depend on your own fire to be your light – be it the light of reason or tradition – the sparks are going to burn you and at God’s hand you’ll lie down in sorrow! Pay heed to God’s servant and, as chapter 53 declares, you will be justified and be at peace.


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