Shabbat Ekev: If, Then

One of the most challenging problems in religious life is that of cause and effect, or, more heartbreakingly often, the obvious lack thereof. Our parashat hashavua for this week begs the question right away, with its opening words:

If you do obey, and guard these rules and do them, G-d will guard the Covenant loyalty that G-d promised to your ancestors. (Devarim 7.12) If we obey and do the mitzvot, we are told that we will be blessed above all other peoples. (7.14)

This seems not only to fly in the face of reason – we know that bad things do happen to good people – but also to be a particularly inapt promise when uttered to a people who have suffered such unbelievable persecution simply for holding on to that Covenant. There actually is a sardonic old statement in Jewish tradition which you may have heard:

G-d, if this is what it means to be chosen, could You please choose someone else for a while?

Beyond the objections we might bring to the message of this week’s reading grounded in logic or simple exhaustion, there is a deeper level, to which Judaism itself bids us, and that, of course, is the ethical. There is a very old story about that:

In the Talmud we are told about Rabbi Joshua ben Levi, who was said to have the occasional conversation with Elijah the Prophet, who, of course, lived many years before. There is an ancient teaching that Elijah the Prophet never died, and that he is among us in disguise. Some day he will make himself known and announce the arrival of the Mashiakh, the Anointed One, a descendant of the House of David, who will lead the people of Israel out from under foreign domination and restore the glory of Jerusalem. (From this, of course, we develop the idea that Elijah comes to every Brit Milah and to every Jewish home during the Seder.) During the days of Roman occupation of Jerusalem, the interest in the coming of the Mashiakh was very keen. Rabbi Joshua ben Levi was one of the few who could identify Elijah in disguise in the marketplace or elsewhere, and was allowed to actually converse with the Prophet.

So the story goes:

Rabbi Joshua ben Levi once asked Elijah: “When will the Mashiakh come?”

Elijah replied: “‘Go and ask him himself.”

“And by what sign may I recognize him?”

“He is sitting among the poor, who are afflicted with disease; all of them untie and retie [the bandages of their wounds] all at once, whereas he unties and rebandages each wound separately, thinking, perhaps I shall be wanted [to appear as the Mashiakh] and I must not be delayed.”

Joshua thereupon went to the Mashiakh and greeted him:

“Peace unto You, master and teacher!”

To this he replied, “‘Peace unto You, ben Levi.”

“When will you come, master?”

“Today.”

Rabbi Joshua waited in joy all that day, and the Mashiakh did not come.

He returned to Elijah and said: “He spoke falsely to me.

For he said he would come today and he has not come.”

Elijah rejoined: “This is what he said: [quoting Ps. 95:7]: Today – if you would but hearken to His voice.” 

(Sanh. 98a as adapted by J. Ibn-Shmuel,Midreshei Ge’ullah (19542), 292–4, 306–8).

There’s that tiny little problematic word again: if. The answer Elijah gives, quoting the Psalm, is maddening. What was Rabbi Joshua ben Levi supposed to hear? We are not told. The Talmud, it seems, wants to tell us that our ancestors had the same difficulties with the If, Then of this parashah. And this is the crux of the matter: we can see the simple equation: if you do this, you’ll receive that. But we are not, perhaps, focused on the deeper, and the larger, circles of cause and effect that actually influence our lives.

Consider Ferguson Missouri, where another unarmed black man has been shot dead. Where was his “if, then”? We may try to make sense of it in a small, immediate way, but we will certainly be mistaken, because the forces that led to that moment in Michael Brown’s life are monumental, complex, and far beyond the understanding of either victim or killer. A true answer would have to take into account why a small police force brought out armored vehicles to confront the citizens who pay their salaries.

Cause and effect are not a child’s game, although we often play at that level, when we ask “what did I do to deserve this?” On that level, parashat Ekev clearly makes no sense. It is not meant for people who use the term “I”. It is meant for that moment when we look at the news report out of Ferguson, or when we consider climate change, or when we try to understand the causative nature of our own relationships upon others. All of us are part of this, and all our actions have effects. The question this Shabbat asks us is this: what have we wrought? what was the cause of this effect? And what voice have we been missing?

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