August 19, 2011

You had to see it to believe it!

Two years ago I lived in Israel and I had an opportunity to tour South Tel Aviv, the part of Tel Aviv that no tourist would ever be shown. There, on every street, in every park, in every corner, were people sleeping and living on the streets. The poverty was out of control.

So, as the protests in Tel Aviv and the rest of Israel broke out in the last couple of weeks, it came as no surprise to me that the people in Israel would finally rebel over the current economic structure. Throughout Israel there have been protests involving nearly 500,000 people.

By no means do I believe that the poverty in Israel is any worse than that of us here in the United States, but I feel as though as a Jewish State, we should be working harder to lessen the poverty in Israel. Instead, it has been reported that 30-40 percent of the country’s wealth is in the hands of a few individuals and little is being put back into the society to help eradicate the poverty issues, especially in South Tel Aviv.

This week’s parasha, Eikev is aptly named and relates directly to this issue in Tel Aviv. Eikev means “on the heels of.” This refers to the consequences of not heeding or ignoring Gods commandments. Moses delivers a discourse whose central point is that listening to God brings blessing, while ignoring God brings curse. The most famous passage begins at Devarim, Deuteronomy 11:13, and is of course the second paragraph of the Shema. The premise of this entire parashah is that compliance with the Teaching leads to directly observable benefits. A Righteous Israel means good and prosperity while a wicked Israel means bad and penury. More simply stated, the fundamental doctrine of reward and punishment based on the mitzvot.

Yet this “prosperity gospel” (to use the Christian term for this way of thinking) is not so simplistic. Moses directly addresses the tendency of wealthy people to congratulate themselves for their great merit. In 9:4-6 he tells Israel that it is not their righteousness that has entitled them to reward—for they are a stiff necked people—but rather God’s promise to the ancestors that motivates the gift of the land. In other words: it is your fault when bad things happen, but not necessarily to your credit when the good times roll.

This form of theology has resonated with hundreds of generations of Jews as well as other peoples of faith. When there is calamity, we have historically accepted this as a form of chastisement from heaven and responded to woe with renewed piety. And when there is prosperity, we have tried to sustain the good times by the means of regular expression of gratitude. Only in this way could we curtail arrogance and avoid provoking God’s anger. Indeed, one of our parashah’s most famous lines, ואכלת ושבעת וברכת “you shall eat, be satisfied and praise God” (8:10) is explained in the following verses as being, “lest…you grow arrogant and forget the Lord your God” ורם לבבך ושכחת את יקוק אלהיך. Thanksgiving is a curb on arrogance, and human arrogance can be the downfall regarding the covenant with God. Be constantly conscious of the source of your blessings.

By no means do I agree with this theology presented above in its entirety, but I do think there is a lesson to be learned from this week’s parsha with regard to what is happening in Israel. We need our politicians to stop being so arrogant and take time to support those less fortunate. As Jews, we should learn from this week’s parsha to do our best to act in a way that God would want us to. It is time that we push the leaders in Israel to do what is right for the collective good. This is what God would want and what Moses attempted to teach the Israelites this week.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

*****Please note that this week on Shabbat morning in place of a sermon, we will be discussing this further as a congregation with additional texts offered both agreeing and disagreeing with the topic of arrogance versus gratitude.