By Rabbi Lee Wax
Rewards and punishments, warnings, promises, storytelling, myth-making, along with shocking commands to mercilessly destroy entire peoples, and heart-rending reminders of how we forget the tender bonds of love with God and carelessly shatter our relationship with the divine for our own sense of powerful self. This is the domain of Ekev, this week’s parasha, a roller-coaster of emotions, packed with familiar phrases including ‘ve’achalta ve’savata u’verachta etc. (8:10) – when you have eaten and been satisfied, give thanks …’ (from Birkat Hamazon) and the whole of the second paragraph of the Shema (11:13–21).
The overriding theme of the parasha is our covenantal relationship with God, and it opens and closes with verses of love and promise. But we learn that the covenant is two-sided, and wholly dependent on our keeping our side of the bargain by following God’s commands ‘letov lach (10:13) – for your own good’.
The psychological insights in the parasha about relationships are breathtaking: people often imagine psychology was ‘invented’ by Freud, but here are descriptions of our descent into coldness (e.g. 10:16), arrogance and contempt (e.g. 8:11–18) and the abuse of trust (e.g. 9:23). Once-loving relationships are damaged, this parasha teaches, when one partner breaks faith.
In my work with Jewish women survivors of domestic violence and abuse, one of the most heart-breaking moments for a woman is when she realises that her once-loving partner has broken faith. That the coldness, arrogance and contempt now demonstrated towards her (and sometimes their children) is not a temporary blip: it is a permanent shift in his stance towards her. That the security and love she had felt in the relationship is gone: instead it is a place of fear and terrible uncertainty. The bonds of love, sanctified under the chuppah, have become bonds of entrapment.
How does this happen? Sometimes it is gradual, especially with emotional/psychological abuse: belittling, undermining, becoming increasingly nasty and contemptuous. Controlling behaviour might also start gradually: among other things controlling what she wears, who she sees, who she texts, where she goes, what she spends …
With physical violence it often starts with one serious attack: a punch or kick (usually carefully aimed at places covered up by clothes), strangling, pushing. Women often say that they were taken completely by surprise, it was unexpected and out of character. Which is one reason they don’t leave immediately – they believe him when he apologises, brings flowers or gifts, promises never to do it again … until the third, fourth or fifth time. By that time, her self-esteem is broken and fear instilled, she believes him when he says it is a ‘punishment’, that she deserves it, and if she tells anyone the consequences will be much worse.
Violence and abuse against women are widespread, with one in four women experiencing a seriously abusive relationship in their lives. It is a huge social problem. It continues because it is hidden, behind closed doors, and women are too ashamed or fearful to disclose. But it is against Jewish law, it is illegal, and it must stop.
Ekev reminds us of our duty to God, our duty to uphold a society of justice and Godliness, and to teach our children to do the same, letov lach, so that it may be well with us. At Jewish Women’s Aid, we are working towards this. Join us.
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Rabbi Lee Wax has worked as a congregational rabbi and now works for Jewish Women’s Aid, the only charity in the UK to support Jewish women and children experiencing domestic violence and abuse. She and her husband John Launer are members of NNLS, with their twins Ruth and David.