Thoughts on Parashat Ekev

(Deut. 7:12 – 11:25)

[Revised version of Dvar Torah given at Temple Israel on Friday evening 8/11/17]

Tests are no fun.

Okay – I did have a college professor once who said that we should enjoy writing our final exam because it would give us an opportunity to consolidate all we had learned in the course. 

And, I have in fact met a few people over the course of my life who were academically even nerdier than me – if you can believe that --- who enjoyed taking tests.

But not me.

In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Ekev, Moses asserts that the forty-year-long slog through the wilderness --- that this too was a test:

“Remember the long way that the Eternal your God has made you travel in the wilderness these past forty years, in order to test you by hardships, to learn what was in your hearts: whether you would keep the divine commandments or not.”[1]

On the other hand, the prophet Jeremiah sees that trek as a sort of extended honeymoon, portraying God as saying:

I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown.”[2]  

Still, the Deuteronomy version strikes me as more realistic when it uses the language of :

לְמַ֨עַן עַנֹּֽתְךָ֜ לְנַסֹּֽתְךָ֗ / lema’an anotekha lenasotekha (“in order to test you by hardships”)

The verb לנסות/“lenasot”/”to test” has its most vivid appearance in the Torah back in the Book of Genesis in the opening words of the story of the Binding of Isaac. 

וַיְהִי, אַחַר הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה, וְהָאֱלֹהִים, נִסָּה אֶת-אַבְרָהָם/ “Vayehi achar hadevarim ha’eyleh veha’elohim nisah et Avraham.” (“And it came to pass, after all these things, that God tested Abraham.”)[3]

Some commentaries exist that portray Abraham – and even Isaac – as being eager to be subjected to that extreme נסיון  /nisayon/ “ test” of faith.  But the words of our traditional shacharit liturgy strike a more responsive chord in me when they invite us to beseech God: 

וְאַל תְּבִיאֵנוּ לֹא לִידֵי חֵטְא. וְלֹא לִידֵי עֲבֵרָה וְעָוֹן. וְלֹא לִידֵי נִסָּיוֹן. וְלֹא לִידֵי בִזָּיוֹן.

“Ve’al tevieynu lo lidey chet, velo lidey averah ve’avon, velo lidey nisayon velo lidey bizayon.”

 “Lead us not into error, transgression, iniquity, temptation or disgrace”

That’s actually Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ translation.

But the word he translates as “temptation” -- נִסָּיוֹן   (“nisayon”) – literally means “testing.”

So, we could translate it as “Lead us not into error, transgression, inquity, NISAYON/TESTING or disgrace ---   from the same verb לנסות  (lenasot) that we find in Parashat Ekev concerning the 40 years of testing by hardships – and  in Akedat Yitzkhak (the “Binding of Isaac” episode in Genesis 22) concerning God’s testing of Abraham when God commands him to sacrifice his son. 

To give you one more example of NISAYON/TESTING, in Psalm 95, traditionally recited every Friday night as part of the Kabbalat Shabbat service, we find the admonition:

אַל־תַּקְשׁ֣וּ לְ֭בַבְכֶם כִּמְרִיבָ֑ה כְּי֥וֹם מַ֝סָּ֗ה בַּמִּדְבָּֽר׃

אֲשֶׁ֣ר נִ֭סּוּנִי אֲבוֹתֵיכֶ֑ם בְּ֝חָנ֗וּנִי גַּם־רָא֥וּ פָעֳלִֽי׃

“Don’t be stubborn as at Meribah, as on the day of Massah, in the wilderness,

when your ancestors tested Me, tried Me, though they had seen My deeds.”[4]

So, God, it would seem, doesn’t like being tested either.

As we gather here this Shabbat, we find two famously volatile world leaders testing each other.

And just as being put to the test was no fun for Abraham at Mt. Moriah, or the Israelites in the wilderness, or generations of students at semester’s end –

It’s no fun for us either.

To say the least.

As with any issue of global import, the issues are not as cut and dried as we might like to imagine.

One can be horrified by the charged rhetoric of President Trump.

But one might also reasonably wonder whether that’s the sort of rhetoric that is needed when dealing with a tyrant like Kim Jong-un

One might view the North Korean President as an irrational aggressor. 

But one might also remember that when Muammar Gaddafi of Libya gave up his weapons of mass destruction, he was rewarded with a NATO-led invasion that ousted him and led to his death at the hands of his own people.

Although the rhetoric coming from Trump and Kim Jong-Un is alarming, my sense is that we are not heading for a return of  the guns of August 1914; or the mushroom clouds of August 1945; or the missiles of October 1962.

Wiser heads will prevail.

Trump and Kim Jong-Un will be satisfied with rattling their respective verbal sabers.

And everyone will declare victory and walk away.

At least let’s hope and pray that this is indeed the case:

Shabbat shalom.

[Postscript:  The diplomatic flare-up over North Korea was quickly overshadowed this past weekend by the demonstrations and domestic terrorism that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia. Amidst those tragedies and crises, the one possible silver lining is that it provided face-saving “breathing space” for the Trump and Kim Jong-Un administrations to tamp down their threatening rhetoric. See:  https://www.vox.com/world/2017/8/15/16150412/trump-north-korea-charlottesville ]


© Rabbi David Steinberg

August 2017/ Av 5777


[1] Deuteronomy 8:2

[2] Jeremiah 2:2 (This is one of the zichronot/”remembrances” verses featured in the Rosh Hashanah liturgy.)

[3] Genesis 22:1 (This is the Torah reading for the second morning of Rosh Hashanah.)

[4] Psalm 95: 8-9 (The reference to “Massah and Meribah” refers to the incident described at Exodus 17: 1-7)

Posted on August 15, 2017 .