Saturday, July 27, 2013
Today, the 20th of Av, marks my father’s yahrzeit. I dedicate this d’var Torah to him, Bernard Wolfman, an accomplished speaker who gave me my first lessons in public address 39 years ago when I was preparing my Bat Mitzvah speech. And in the spirit of Eikev, he taught us to take responsibility for the consequences of our actions and inaction.
The circus is in town. This weekend, Circus Smirkus performs at the Gore Estate.
What is the circus? It’s an opportunity to believe, if only for a couple of hours, in magic.
And what is magic? Wikipedia gives this definition:
The power of apparently influencing the course of events by using mysterious or supernatural forces.
The art that purports to control or forecast natural events, effects, or forces by invoking the supernatural.
To promote this season’s act, with its Wizard of Oz theme, Circus Smirkus writes:
Grab your Ruby Slippers and click your heels together, as Circus Smirkus goes "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" ….
But in truth, a magical click of the heels does not bring a circus to fruition. The hard work that goes into perfecting acrobatics, clown acts, high wire precision and gymnastic prowess leads to an end result that makes it all seem magical.
As something that emerges from supernatural or mysterious forces, magic seems squarely in the realm of religion. And in many contexts, religion focuses on the acceptance of unfathomable unknowns. But Eikev asks us instead to look also at the hard, human work behind the supposed magic of the supernatural forces in our lives.
Eikev means, essentially, “as a consequence of.” The commentary in the Eitz Hayim Chumash points out that it might seem odd that a portion begins with this word, as though in the middle of a thought. But by beginning here it allows us to frame the narrative from here through chapter 8, which also ends with an Eikev clause.
What falls between these statements of consequence are, when you think about it, pretty magical concepts for any people at any time, but particularly for a group that just spent 400 years in slavery followed by 40 wandering in the wilderness. The promise of no sterility among the people or their livestock. No illness. Total dominance over enemies, regardless of their size and means. Unending resources of food, water and ore. In fact the text seems to encourage ascribing these to magic, when defined as the supernatural, as Moshe says:
beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget Adonai your God and you say to yourselves, “My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.” Remember that it is Adonai your God who gives you the power to get wealth, in fulfillment of the covenant that God made on oath with your ancestors, as is still the case.
Yet the text anchors these fantastical concepts with eikev. With consequences. With cause and effect. The promises that Moshe summarizes, as the embodiment of the covenant, depend upon the everyday actions of the people. The parashah begins by telling us that eikev—as a consequence of—the people obeying the rules, good things will happen. And chapter 8 concludes by telling us that eikev—as a consequence of—failing to heed God’s commandments, bad things will happen.
It’s a pretty radical concept. We have influence interlaced with God’s power. We have the will to help determine how God will act. It is not enough to believe. We must act. We must act thoughtfully, purposefully, wittingly. There are consequences to our actions that impact the forces in our world—even those we might call “supernatural.”
We should not be surprised, then, that in Chapter 9 Moshe warns against illusions of superiority, telling us “It is not because of your virtues and your rectitude that you will be able to possess their country; but it is because of their wickedness that Adonai your God is disposing of those nations…. Know, then, that it is not for any virtue of yours that Adonai your God is giving you this good land….”
Having established that our actions and inactions have consequences, it might be easy for our good fortune to go to our heads. In this complex relationship of human consequences and supernatural intervention, the role of God can help us to maintain our humility.
And suddenly, the text takes a hard turn away from the life to come across the Jordan, and how we might earn it, steering instead to a recap of all Moshe did to bring the Israelites to this point despite themselves. In this interlude he seems to embody the very arrogance against which he has just cautioned. Perhaps we are to take it as an example of the trap we must avoid.
What are we to make of a text that reminds us of God’s “majesty” and “mighty hand” in the plagues and the parting of the sea, while insisting on the cause and effect our own actions in determining the quality of our future?
I believe we are to understand that faith matters but it’s not enough. It’s not the whole answer. Nor is the elevation of our own power, impact and will. Our future is born of both: taking responsibility for our actions and respecting what is beyond us.
Perhaps this is why we love the circus. The ability to perform results from the choices people have made to work hard honing their skills and practicing their acts. It could not have happened without the hard work, and we do appreciate it all the more for knowing the effort behind the act, but we’d rather not see the sweat. Instead, we want to suspend our disbelief and feel the magic. To some degree, we want to go on faith.
We must make decisions with an understanding that our choices, our actions, yield consequences. And we must have faith that those actions happen within a context greater than ourselves. This combination of perspectives just may bring out the strong yet graceful in us, or the practical yet idealistic in us. It gives us dimension and makes us whole.
May we all feel the wholeness that comes from the comforting weight of knowing that our actions have consequences and the freeing lightness of knowing that we have the capacity to soar—even if it’s not on the flying trapeze.
Thank you to my fellow congregants at Temple Beth Israel in Waltham, MA--our new community--for inviting me to deliver the d'var Torah this morning.