Parasha / E-Letter

Parashat Ekev: Overcoming the despair of vengeance

1 Comment 09 August 2017

This week’s Torah portion includes some disturbing material. In his commentary, Rabbi Jeremy Milgrom tackles how we, as people deeply concerned with human rights, must approach the vengeance and injustice written into Parashat Ekev. 

A_map_of_Canaan_(8343807206)

A 1692 depiction of Canaan, by Philip Lea. http://maps.bpl.org – A map of Canaan, CC BY 2.0,

By Rabbi Jeremy Milgrom

Reading a parasha such as ours, which commands love as well as (gulp…) genocide, is particularly challenging on a week which commemorates the 72nd anniversary of the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. If you’re drawn to a website devoted to exposing, condemning, atoning for and stopping human rights violations, you’re tough enough to deal with the fact that what passed for inspiration and consolation for our ancestors occasionally brings us great consternation, but as long as we’re not simply censoring out the problematic passages, we have no choice but to deal with them as best we can.

Parashat Ekev (Deut. 7:12-11:25) contains oft quoted passages, such as V’haya Im Shamo’a (11:13-21, the second paragraph of the Shema) and Shiv’at Haminim (8:8, the seven agricultural products of the land), as well as a recap of the Golden Calf episode. And the text never fails to reveal surprises, but they’re not always pleasant ones.

On the plus side stands the astonishing focus of God’s love on the ger (stranger/foreigner/sojourner/immigrant):

“He is the great, powerful, and awe-inspiring God. He never plays favorites and never takes a bribe. 18 He makes sure orphans and widows receive justice. He loves the ger and gives him food and clothes. 19 So you should love the ger, because you were gerim living in Egypt” ( Deut 10: 17-19).

At the other extreme, Israel is commanded to obliterate the memory of the nations indigenous to the Promised Land (Deut. 7:24). Not just defeating them, or displacing them, but wiping out every trace of them under the sky, à la Amalek (25:19), and worse than the punishment meted out to Egypt – except that the Bible tells us that Amalek ambushed us, and that Egypt enslaved us, while the justification for the eradication of the Canaanite nations is a vague wickedness or evil (9:5) which the text feels no need to elaborate. The text states that we didn’t merit inheriting the land — it reminds us that we were stiff-necked; it’s just that God loved us, which actually means “favored,” us (cf. the new JPS translation of 7:1), in contradiction to 10:17 which we read above. But Pablo Casals’ famous quote fits right in here: “The love of one’s country is a natural thing. But why should love stop at the border?”

A closer look at the love God offers us is surely disconcerting:

“He led you through the desert these forty years to afflict, to try you, to know what’s in your heart, would you keep His commandments or not. He afflicted you and starved you and forced you to eat manna…you should know that as a man chastens his son, so does God chasten you” (8:2-5), an attitude which is best summed up in the infamous, “He who spares the rod, hates his son, but if he loves him, he hastens his chastisement” (Proverbs 13:24).

So, how do you solve a problem like Deuteronomy, beyond putting it to the tune of “How do you solve a problem like Maria” and moving on?

Modern biblical criticism tells us that most of Deuteronomy dates from the end of the waning Judean kingdom, roughly 2600 years ago, and many centuries after Israel’s entry into the land. On this basis we can say that the command to wipe out the (idolatrous) indigenous nations was never carried out, but was a kind of fantasy: if only we had wiped out the Canaanites, we would not have succumbed to the temptation of worshipping their gods and would not have incured God’s wrath. But we’re still stuck wondering how the biblical author could have imagined such a vicious and unjust God. Perhaps what’s important about this text is that it tells us of Israel’s desperation, which was severe enough that it allowed for a theology so brutal and selfish. On this background, the statement of God’s love for the ger shines even brighter, and commands us to envision and implement co-existence and partnership with Others, not their elimination.

So, do these chapters of Deuteronomy give us anything aside from sentimental quotes that are occasionally woefully out of touch with our modern sensitivities, not to say downright antisocial? We may be tempted to absent ourselves (or at least doze off) when they are read, but they resonate too deeply in our body politic for them to be ignored; if ever a vigorous effort to struggle with and refine a text was needed, it is here and now.

That people are capable of projecting the terror of their lives on others, and even (or especially) on God, is evident these days from the popularity of disheartening public discourses everywhere. May we have the strength of faith in goodness and mercy to overcome such despair.

Jeremy MilgromRabbi Jeremy Milgrom is a member of Rabbis for Human Rights

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1 comment

  1. Philip McFedries says:

    Profoundly moving! Thank you so much!


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