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Parashat Eikev

By Janine Stein

One of the joys of the lockdown has been doing things I didn’t think were possible before. For example, every Monday, I now have a Hebrew lesson over Zoom with my mother who lives far away in sunny Cape Town. She is a Hebrew teacher and my Hebrew needs improving.  In truth, it’s a great way to spend time with my mom.  So, once a week, she teaches me some Hebrew grammar and then we study the poems of Yehuda Amichai.  

Yesterday we looked at his poem called Ecology of Jerusalem.  The last stanza said: 

‘And in enclosed gardens heavy with jasmine, foreign consulates, like wicked brides that have been rejected, lie in wait for their moment.’ 

My mother and I were flummoxed. What did that mean? Where had I read about those wicked brides before? And where had I read about them in connection to something that smelled strongly?  The answer was in response to this week’s parashah.  

In the Parashah of Eikev this week, we read Moses’s description of what happened when he came down from Sinai. He says: 

So, I turned and came down from the mountain, and the mountain burned with fire; and the two tablets of the covenant were in my two hands. And I looked, and behold, you had sinned against the Lord your God, and had made a molten calf; you had turned aside quickly out of the way which God had commanded you. 

I grabbed hold of the two tablets, and cast them out of my two hands, and broke them before your eyes . . . 

After destroying the Golden Calf, Moses returns to the summit of Mount Sinai to receive the second set of tablets from God. 

The rabbis of the Talmud see this story as evidence that while the children of Israel behaved unforgivably,  God still gave them another chance.  In b.Gittin 61, the rabbis describe the children of Israel as a bride who has sex with another man under her wedding canopy. Rashi says this is the shameful behaviour of the Jews who while still encamped at Sinai – the ‘bridal chamber’ where God had taken them to be his Holy Nation – were unfaithful to him by worshipping the Golden Calf. They are like an adulterous bride who from the get-go, cheats on her husband.  They truly are like Yehuda Amichai says, ‘a wicked bride’.  

The rabbis of the Talmud go on to interpret a line from the Song of Songs (1:12) to say that God is like the long-suffering king who sat on his couch at the wedding festivities, and his bride, the Jewish people, gave off a smell by sinning with the Golden Calf. The rabbis notice that verse should have said Israel’s scent became putrid, but the text of the Torah says instead that Israel gave off a ‘pleasant’ aroma. The way they see it, this choice of expression is a mark of God’s continued love for the Jewish people, despite its acts of faithlessness towards him.  

In other words, we may reek to high heaven, but God never turns his nose up at us. 

I remember that I first read this section of the Talmud on a sunny day in Jerusalem at the Conservative Yeshiva. It was one of those rare experiences where you feel like the long-dead author of the text is talking to you directly.  The sugiyah goes on to say one of the most intriguing things in the whole Talmud. 

‘The Sages taught: Those who are insulted but do not insult others, who hear their shame but do not respond, who act out of love and are joyful in their suffering, about them the verse states: “And they that love Him are as the sun going forth in its might” (Judges 5:31)’. Rashi comments on the acting out of love phrase: ‘they do mitzvot out of love and not in order to earn reward or for fear of his punishment’. 

I find it comforting to know that the sun, even when it is obscured, continues to emit light unendingly. Despite patches of cold and darkness, it is still emitting energy, even though we can’t always see it.  I remember that life is not quid pro quo, and that I should be the bigger person when insulted or shamed. And if I don’t turn my suffering into a cudgel for someone else, I will in some way prevail.  

It’s unlikely I will even occasionally manage this very high standard, but if we learn anything from Eikev today, it’s that even if I behave really badly, completely screw up, and believe in the Golden Calves I build myself; I will always get another chance to redeem myself.  It’s a comforting thought as we approach this year’s Yom Kippur. 

Shabbat Shalom 

Here is the full translated text of Ecology of Jerusalem by Yehuda Amichai 

The air over Jerusalem is saturated with prayers 

and dreams 

like the air over industrial cities. 

It’s hard to breathe. 

And from time to time a new shipment of history arrives 

and the houses and towers are its packing materials. 

Later these are discarded and piled up in dumps. 

And sometimes candles arrive instead of people 

And from time to time a new shipment of history arrives 

and the houses and towers are its packing materials. 

Later these are discarded and piled up in dumps. 

And sometimes candles arrive instead of people 

and then it’s quiet. 

And sometimes people come instead of candles 

and then there’s noise. 

And in enclosed gardens heavy with jasmine 

foreign consulates, 

like wicked brides that have been rejected, 

lie in wait for their moment. 

Here is the text from b.Gittin 36b: 

 The Gemara says: Come and hear that which Ulla said in describing the Jewish people after they sinned with the Golden Calf immediately following the revelation at Sinai: Insolent [aluva] is the bride who is promiscuous under her wedding canopy.גיטין ל״ו ב:י״באמר רב מרי ברה דבת שמואל מאי קרא (שיר השירים א, יב) עד שהמלך במסבו נרדי נתן ריחו אמר רבא עדיין חביבותא הוא גבן דכתיב נתן ולא כתיב הסריחGittin 36b:12Rav Mari, son of Shmuel’s daughter, says: What is the verse from which it is derived? “While the king sat at his table, my spikenard sent forth its fragrance” (Song of Songs 1:12). He understands the verse in the following manner: While the king was still involved in his celebration, i.e., God had just given the Torah, the perfume of the Jewish people gave off an unpleasant odor, i.e., they sinned with the Golden Calf. Rava says: Nevertheless, it is apparent from the verse that the affection of God is still upon us, as it is written euphemistically as “sent forth its fragrance” and the verse is not written: It reeked.גיטין ל״ו ב:י״גתנו רבנן הנעלבין ואינן עולבים שומעי ן חרפתן ואין משיבין עושין מאהבה ושמחין ביסורין עליהן הכתוב אומר (שופטים ה, לא) ואוהביו כצאת השמש בגבורתוGittin 36b:13The Gemara continues discussing the meaning of the word ulbena. The Sages taught: Those who are insulted [ne’elavin] but do not insult others, who hear their shame but do not respond, who act out of love and are joyful in their suffering, about them the verse states: “And they that love Him are as the sun going forth in its might” (Judges 5:31). 

Posted on 6 August 2020