by R. Gidon Rothstein
First Step of a Relationship with Gd: No Others
One clear undercurrent of the parsha reminds the Jewish people to build a good relationship with Gd. It starts with rejecting any other forms of worship. Onkelos emphasizes the point, naming false gods differently than the Torah itself, 7;16. The Torah calls them eloheihem, their gods, using the same word for these false gods as one Name for Gd, Elokim.
Onkelos instead uses ta’avatehon, their error. He seems to me to want us to be sure always to remember this is not an alternative worship we happen not to share (not I believe this, they believe that), it is their mistake, leads them into a whole path of error and worse.
As part of reminding ourselves of the distance between these other worships and truth, the Torah prohibits bringing objects of any such worship into our homes, 7;26. The Torah calls them to’evah, abomination, and obligates Jews to treat them as to’evah, with a doubled verb, ta’ev te-ta’avenu, usually translated as utterly detest. Onkelos instead writes di-mrahak, that should be distanced, and then rahaka te-rahakinei, surely distance it. Although he uses the Aramaic to’evta elsewhere, here he focuses us on making sure we stay far.
A Relationship of Commandedness
Later in the parsha, Moshe Rabbenu brings up the question of what Gd sho’el of the Jews, 10;12. Moshe’s answers Gd “only” expects Jews to fear Gd, walk in all Gd’s ways, love Gd, serve Gd with all their hearts and souls. It is a big ask.
For Onkelos, it might not even be an ask. While he clearly has a word for ask, here he uses the verb tava, which in Hebrew is probably better rendered as “demand.” Tava in Onkelos commonly stands in for darash, to demand or investigate, but also for mevakesh, request.
Onkelos blurs the lines with Gd’s calls to the Jewish people, whether they are a request or a demand. Moshe Rabbenu clearly uses a verb of asking, although the “ask” shapes one’s entire life. Onkelos has the ask merge with a demand.
With Great Rewards
Ramban gives us a sense of what Jews can reap from following through on the ask. Verses tell us Gd will remove all illness, as well as all the ills that befell the Egyptians, 7;15-16. Holi means common illnesses like colds and flus, as opposed to the unusual ills of the Egyptians. Ramban here notes the Torah implies only observance and proper service of Gd exempts Jews from the usual stuff as well as the unusual. (We might have thought the Egyptians bore their ills because of their refusal to heed Gd’s commands to release the Jews. Maybe, yet Ramban thinks Jews’ failure to keep the Torah will expose them to those same ills.
He has a similarly supernatural perspective of food. Moshe reminds the Jews they had never known there was a substance such as man, nor had their righteous forebears received it. Then they survived on it for forty years in the desert, 8;3. Wholly unexpected, perhaps unimaginable, Ramban sees it as a model and reminder Gd supports those who serve properly, in ways they could not have anticipated.
As a small last piece of what the parsha says about our relationship with Gd, Moshe points out to the Jews Gd either invited or tolerated Moshe’s speaking in their defense, by saying heref mimeni, leave Me alone, and I will destroy them, 9;14. Rashi, Shemot 32;10, took Gd’s words as a call for Moshe to step in.
Onkelos writes anah ba’utakh, stop your prayers, implying Moshe had already been praying, and Gd was saying leave Me alone. Meaning, the only way to “stop” Gd is by praying about it.
The Jewish People
As we turn to the parsha’s portrayal of the Jewish people, we see information on how Jews are supposed to relate to Gd on their end. The Torah tells us Gd is (or should be) tehillatekha and Elokecha, terms Ramban can see going one of two ways. Possibly a command, it would obligate Jews to be sure to have only one divinity they praise, to be sure they not revere any other power. Alternatively, the only way the Jewish people earns or garners praise is by serving Gd.
For Rashi, acceptance is central to that service. He takes the Torah’s reference to Gd testing the Jews to see if they would fulfill Gd’s commands, 8;2, as a matter of their not testing nor doubting Gd. Beyond technical observance, Jews have to approach the Creator with submission.
Ramban reads 9;4-5 to mean the attitude issue goes a step further, requires Jews to avoid flattering themselves into thinking they deserve whatever good Gd sends their way. Previously, the Torah had warned them not to think they had done it, they were the force producing victory or prosperity; now they were being told Gd has many reasons for sending this good their way, they should not think they merited it. While the Torah did say Gd treats the Jews well out of love for them, 7;8, and Ramban is sure Gd only loves what is good, it is the people as an historical entity, not any particular generation of Jews. Any specific group of Jews, and we, have to realize we are likely falling far short of deserving the good Gd sends.
Evidence of the Jews’ Problems
The parsha backs up Ramban’s claim. Its opening includes the unusual word ekev for “in return for,” a word Rashi took as also referring to mitzvot people treat lightly, as if they are unimportant. First problem, for the people of then (and now), our tendency to decide we know how to prioritize, what is more important than what.
The parsha also told Rashi of a greater flaw in that generation. He cites a Midrash wondering about the different order of the Jews’ travels in this parsha from how it was reported in Bamidbar. The Midrash decides the Torah here includes a set of travels it earlier glossed over. When Aharon died, and the protective clouds of Glory left the Jewish people, the Midrash says the people revolted and decided to go back to Egypt. The Levi’im stepped in to stop them, and a civil war ensued, with losses on both sides.
After forty years in the desert, with all the history we already know, the Midrash and Rashi think the Jews would still have fled to Egypt at the first hint of trouble, and it took sacrifices by the Levi’im to keep them on the path.
Ramban notes another indication of the people’s limitations. The first verse in the parsha says Gd will bless the people ekev (as we saw) their observance of these mishpatim. Such laws need adamant and repeat warnings, as well as enforcement, because otherwise people will stop keeping them, and Gd will be “forced” to punish.
Ramban knows of people who say punishment is wrong, adds unneeded sadness and does nothing to rectify the sin committed. In his view, the Torah’s telling the people not to have compassion on the idolatrous nations they are about to conquer, 7;16, makes a broader point of how to react to wrongs. Establishing and enforcing laws to keep people on the proper side of Gd’s service is vital to the continuity of the society, is why the Torah puts it first.
Comments in the parsha also give a sense of the Levi’im’s role in the nation; I am leaving them for space reasons, because Gd, People, and Land is too good a triad to leave behind.
Rain and the Greatness of the Land of Israel
Rashi and Ramban disagree on why Israel’s subsistence on rainwater makes it a better land than Egypt, as the Torah says, 11;10-11. Rashi says the always available water in the Nile means Egyptian farmers must irrigate manually, a difficult task in the hills and valleys of Israel. Rainwater gives convenience.
Ramban sees it more directly religiously. In Egypt, the ever presence of water gives a false sense of security, misleads them into forgetting their reliance on Gd. Israel, a Land he thinks needs water throughout the year, guides its residents back to Gd, Whose rains they know they need. As Ramban puts it, a sick or poor person has a greater immediate sense of Gd, because the instability of their situations grants them awareness of their dependence. He applies Mishlei 29;13, Gd is me’ir einei sheneihem, enlightens both the poor and the blind, as happens for all Jews in Israel.
Then he adds a sod amok, a deep secret, based on 11;12’s saying Israel is a Land Gd is doresh. Ramban says only Israel is nidreshet, looked after, by Gd, all other Lands securing their sustenance by way of Israel. For him, Gd gave the Jewish people the Land that sits at the center of the world in terms of Gd’s relationship with that world, a Land that guides them towards Gd’s service, if only they pay attention.
The triad of Gd, Jews, and Israel in the parsha sets up a path to success for the Jewish people: rejecting other gods, listening to Gd in all the broad and specific ways commanded, setting up enforcement mechanisms and laws to keep Jews attached to Gd’s service, and living in Israel mindfully, aware of its blessings and its sensitivity to Divine Providence.
All of that can hopefully lead us to a future where Jews succeed in serving their role as Gd’s people on earth, in their Land, the source of blessing for all lands.