Rabbis Without Borders
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It is somewhat ironic that it is summertime – when most Americans look forward to beaches and summer vacations – when the saddest, bleakest day of the Jewish calendar occurs. But perhaps it is not so surprising that it is at the time when the heat weighs heavily and the sun strikes those so inclined into the madness of violence. For our ancestors, summer wasn’t a time of play, but of oppressive difficulty. Even now, having passed the observance of Tisha B’Av, we haven’t abandoned the mood of horror at what people do to one another, still reciting on Shabbat words of comfort in the Haftarah – for several weeks yet- to remind ourselves that we have survived this time, and we will rebuild.
In this week’s Torah portion, Eikev, Deuteronomy 8 demands that we remember the source of our wealth. Verse 10 states, “And you will eat and be satisfied and you will bless God for the good land that God gave to you.” This verse, which is part of the blessing after meals, continues on to remind us, “lest you eat and be satisfied, and you build good houses and settle…and increase silver and gold for yourselves…and forget your God…Who feeds you manna in the Wilderness…in order to test you…and you say in your heart, ‘My strength and the strength of my hand made all this wealth for me.’ And you will remember your God, that God is the One who gave you strength to make wealth, in order to establish God’s covenant that God swore to your ancestors, as to this day.” (Vss. 12-18)
The commentator Sforno, comments that “In order to test you” means that God will test whether Israel would do God’s will when God grants us sustenance without effort. We often think of “tests of God” in the sense of trials that are to be suffered, but our sages recognize that good fortune is if anything, more of a trial of our mettle than suffering is. When we have enough – or more than sufficient -It is far more in the way of human nature to think it is our own strength and abilities that brought us what we have.
It is well-documented that donations to charities and active involvement in social causes are inversely proportional to wealth. The less money one has, the more likely one is to empathize with the poor and to materially help them when asked. Deuteronomy 8:3 states, “[God] afflicted you and let you hunger, then fed you the manna that you did not know, nor did your ancestors know, in order to make you know that not by bread alone does a person live, rather by all that comes from the mouth of God does a person live.”
Nahmanides (Ramban)’s comments that wealth is a test, and cites the section of Exodus of the manna (also mentioned in verse 16 above). He says that God responds to the community’s complaints by saying, “I am here! I will rain down food from the heavens… so that I can test them, whether they will follow my teachings or not.(Ex 16:4).” Ramban says this means, “that I will provide them their needs and fulfill their request and then see if they will listen to Me ‘when goods increase.’” Here he is also citing Ecclesiastes 5:9-10 “He who loves silver shall not be satisfied with silver, nor he who loves abundance with increase: this is also vanity. When goods increase, they who eat them are increased: and what good is there to the owner…” and further sends us to Proverbs 30:8, “Distance me from vanity and lies, poverty and riches do not give to me, but feed me from my portion; lest I become sated, and deny You, and say, “Who is God…”
It is unsurprising that we prefer to think of what we have as springing from our own power; it is frightening to think otherwise. If we got it by our own power, the implication is that we will be able to hold onto it. If it is not ours, then the future seems much more uncertain. But it seems that the result of satiety and plenty is selfishness. Rather than regarding ourselves as having been given enough in order to help others, the impulse we have seems to be to pull the ladder up after ourselves.
This summer, we have seen an orgy of selfishness. Our national leaders, tasked with maintaining the common good, have instead used their power to try to leave the poor without health care, to eject the stranger, to let the hungry starve.
Ezekiel 16:49 says that this was the sin of Sodom: “Behold, this was the iniquity of thy sister Sodom: pride, the fulness of bread, and careless ease was in her and in her daughters; neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy.”
The sages explain that Sodom was the wealthiest and most productive land on earth – but they refused to let anyone share in their plenty. Nahhmanides explained, “Their intention was to stop immigration… for they thought that because of the excellence of their land… many will come there and they despised charity… they continued provoking and rebelling against Him with their ease and the oppression of the poor… their fate was sealed because of this sin – i.e. they did not strengthen the hand of the poor and needy – since this sin represented their usual behavior more than any other.”
It is difficult to know what one might consider a test from God. But surely, a time in which there is great prosperity, the prosperity which has coagulated among a small group of individuals who seek to prevent it being shared with others, if that is not a test, then I do not know what is.
The summer is not yet over. But soon, we will enter the days of repentance, and we hope for forgiveness. Let us at this time bless for all the good we have and remember that it is not by the strength of our own hands that we have it. Sufficiency is a grace – let us remember that it is a grace for the purpose of being shared. Our strength comes from sharing, not hoarding; from building a nation and reaching out to others. If we would have a nation that lives in strength, we must remember the One who gave us the strength to make wealth, in order to establish God’s covenant.
Pronounced: hahf-TOErah or hahf-TOE-ruh, Origin: Hebrew, a selection from one of the biblical books of the Prophets that is read in synagogue immediately following the Torah reading.