Light from the Sidra

Ekev ('If you follow') 7th August 2015. 23rd Av 5775

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

Please note that unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from Tanach (The Artscroll™ Series/Stone Edition, April 2013. Published and Distributed by Mesorah Publications, Ltd, 4401 Second Avenue / Brooklyn, New York 11232)


Born to follow

One of the most popular shows in London right now is the musical Beautiful, which charts the rise to stardom of the almost legendary Jewish singer-songwriter Carol King. The archetypal ‘Hippie chick,’ one of Carol’s memorable songs is, ‘Wasn’t Born to Follow.’ The song has been covered by many other artists but I still love Carol’s hauntingly melodic original version while at the same time finding it sad that a woman who belongs to a people who are called to follow their God boasts exemption from that destiny.

A religiously observant Jewish man once told me that before offering the Torah to Israel HASHEM first offered it to the nations. They rejected the Torah because it was too hard for them to keep; only Israel accepted the terms and conditions of the Torah and entered into covenant with HASHEM.

According to this way of thinking God’s election of Israel was conditional on Israel’s willingness to follow the Torah. But when HASHEM called Abram out of Ur of the Chaldees, he didn’t ask if Abram was willing to go to an unknown country; HASHEM ordered him to leave and foretold Israel’s redemption from Egypt 400 years before the Torah was given. When HASHEM gave his Torah to Israel at Sinai, there is no record of him asking if Israel would care to accept his laws, precepts and commandments; he had brought them out of the house of bondage and they were obligated to keep his Torah.

God’s election of Israel was unconditional but Israel’s continued enjoyment of the blessings he had prepared for them in the Promised Land depended on their obedience. From what we see in Scripture, Israel’s track record of obedience was, to put it mildly, unimpressive. But the Sidra is full of promise for Israel. It is full of incentives to keep HASHEM’s commandments. ‘This shall be the reward when you hearken to these ordinances, and you observe and perform them; HASHEM, your God will safeguard for you the covenant and the kindness that he swore to your forefathers. He will love you, bless you and multiply you… You will be the most blessed of all peoples . . .’ (Deut 7:12-14).

Wonderful! But the clear implication is that if Israel does not hearken to HASHEM’s regulations to keep and observe his ordinances, they will suffer, a theme that will develop throughout the book. HASHEM foresees Israel’s disobedience: they will forget him and what he has done for them. And when they forget HASHEM they will turn to other gods, they will become self-righteous and they will become materialistic.

Take-you-care lest you forget HASHEM, your God, by not observing his commandments, his ordinances and decrees, which I command you today, lest you eat and be satisfied, and you build good houses and settle… your heart will become haughty and you will forget HASHEM, your God… you may say in your heart: ‘My strength and the might of my hand made me all this wealth; then you shall remember HASHEM, your God; that is He Who gives you strength to make wealth… (Deut.8:11-19.).

Atheism, materialism and self-righteousness are mankind’s default settings and, as Rabbi Lionel Blue memorably quipped, ‘Jews are 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.

We know from the Bible that Israel failed to follow HASHEM’s commandments but the Haftarah speaks of a servant of HASHEM who is everything God intended Israel to be. His ear is open to God’s Torah and he gives heed to God; he is obedient but voluntarily suffers shame and pain: ‘I submitted my body to those who smite and my cheeks to those who pluck, I did not hide my face from humiliation and spit’ (Is. 50:6). The obedient servant obviously isn’t Israel because, in verse 10, HASHEM asks: ‘Who among you fears HASHEM, listening to the voice of his servant?—Though he may have walked in darkness with no light for himself, let him trust in the name of HASHEM, and rely upon his God’ (Is. 50:10).

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 HASHEM? 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 of you are igniters of fire, kindlers of sparks. Go in the flame of your fire, and in the sparks you have lit; from My hand has this [decree] come upon you; that you should die in sorrow’ (Is 50:11).

Who is the servant Israel should listen to? Although Rashi believed the servant was a reference to the prophets, none of the prophets (not even Isaiah) demanded that the people listen to their 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– be that the fire of reason or tradition – as your light and the sparks of it will burn you and at God’s hand you will die down in sorrow! Pay heed to God’s servant, who appears again in chapter 53, and you will be justified and at peace.

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