Wrestling With The Sacred

This week’s Torah reading, Eikev, contains some familiar passages, such as the verse which forms the basis for Birkat haMazon, the blessing after meals: V’ahavta, v’savata u-vayrachta et Ado-nai Elo-heinu… “You will eat, you will be satisfied, and then you will bless the LORD your God.”

Another passage is 11:13-21, verses we know as the “second paragraph of the Shema,” where God promises the proper rains in their seasons as long as the Israelites, settled in their land, obey God’s commandments. This is problematic for many modern worshippers, and the Reform movement’s prayer book took this paragraph out years ago.

But what I’d like to talk about are verses that I see as even more problematic, and they’re sprinkled throughout the parashah. These verses have to do with destroying or dispossessing the people currently living in the Promised Land, either by God–through plague–or by the incoming Israelites, with God’s help. I don’t read the Torah as a history book, nor do I see these verses as directives. I’m also not aware of any archaeological evidence to support that the idea that these destructions even happened… and we know that history is written by the victors.

Let me be clear that I don’t condone this behavior, but wars over land and the desire to expand one’s holdings is as old as time. However, when I read these passages, I can’t help but think about European colonialism, which according to an article in National Geographic online, began in the 15th Century, and “By 1914, a large majority of the world’s nations had been colonized by Europeans at some point,” and “It occurs when one nation subjugates another, conquering its population and exploiting it, often while forcing its own language and cultural values upon its people.

Some people might say that the current State of Israel displays these characteristics. I don’t agree with this sentiment at all, but I do want to acknowledge that some may, and we can agree to disagree–civilly. There’s a big difference between conquering another land in order to bring “civilization” to “savages” and immigrants fleeing persecution and destruction in their own home countries. Interestingly, in the same chapters where the Israelites are told that they will occupy the land, they’re reminded va-ahavtem et ha geir, ki geirim he-yitem b’eretz mitzrayim, “Love the stranger, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

So where’s the connection, and how do we make sense of this parashah while we struggle with problematic commandments? For me, it speaks to motivation. In Bereshit, God promised a particular piece of land with defined borders to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and now their descendants are to inherit it. Colonialism involves take-overs through human might and power, but God makes it very clear that the land is being given to the Israelites by God’s grace, as it says in the Book of Zecharia, “Not by might or power but by my spirit, says the Lord of Hosts,” meaning that the current king, Zerubabbel, will succeed because of God’s gifts.

Speaking through Moses, God reminds the people that they won’t enter the land because of their military prowess or anything they have achieved, it is a gift from God.

What God wants from the Israelites, then and now, is halakh l’darkho, to walk in God’s ways. The people living in the land of Canaan weren’t doing that–they were worshipping idols and sinning in God’s eyes (so we’re told). By removing these peoples from the land, by smashing their idols and icons, and burning them, they’re removing the very real and present temptation to stray from the Divine. As someone who has engaged in a life-long struggle with the scale, I know that when I decide I’m going to eat more healthy foods, it’s important to get rid of tempting trigger foods that will very likely derail my best efforts, because–after all–I’m only human.

Do I think this justifies these verses? Do I like them? Absolutely not. But I also don’t think they should be summarily rejected without wrestling with them to see what we might learn, and how we might find meaning in them, and finally, to know what we’re rejecting.


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