In this portion, Moses presents the People with a jumble of sentiments — from sweeping promises to dire threats — which found their way into prominent roles in our prayers. And, while biblical context often has little to do with the use the siddur makes of the bible’s language, our prayers do reflect this portion’s tangled relationship between the People, God and others.
A Range of Sentiments
In parashat Eikev, Moses’ address includes ethical directives of sublime simplicity, lush promises, threats of violence toward other peoples, and unabashed attacks on the People:
“And now, O Israel, what does the LORD your God demand of you? Only this: to revere the LORD your God, to walk only in His paths, to love Him, and to serve the LORD your God with all of your heat and soul”
— Deuteronomy/Devarim 10:12
“For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with streams and springs and fountains…of wheat and barley, of vines, figs and pomegranates…where you will lack nothing…When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to the LORD your God for the good land He has given you.”
— Deuteronomy/Devarim 8:7-10
“[God] will deliver their kings into your hand, and you shall obliterate their name from under the heavens; no man shall stand up to you, until you have wiped them out.”
— Deuteronomy/Devarim 7:24
“As long as I have known you, you have been defiant toward the LORD”
— Deuteronomy/Devarim 9:24
these four translation quotes from JPS*
A Range of Prayers
Devarim/Deuteronomy 11:13-21 comprises the second paragraph of the Shema, which contains both promises of plenty and threats of anger and disaster, depending on whether the People “listen to the commandments” or let their “hearts be deceived.”
The textual basis for the Birkat Hamazon [blessing after meals] is Devarim/Deuteronomy 8:10, found amid recollections of how God cared for the People in the wilderness, through much difficulty, and promises regarding the Land, where they will “eat bread without scarceness.”
Language appearing in the opening, Avot**, blessing of the Amidah — the great, the mighty, and the awesome God [ha-el ha-gadol, ha-gibor v’ha-nora] — is also found in this portion (as well as in Nehemia 9:32). It comes from a section that emphasizes the link between God’s care and the People’s ethical obligations:
And now, Israel, what doth the LORD thy God require of thee, but to fear the LORD thy God, to walk in all His ways, and to love Him, and to serve the LORD thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul; 13 to keep for thy good the commandments of the LORD, and His statutes, which I command thee this day? 14 Behold, unto the LORD thy God belongeth the heaven, and the heaven of heavens, the earth, with all that therein is. 15 Only the LORD had a delight in thy fathers to love them, and He chose their seed after them, even you, above all peoples, as it is this day. 16 Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no more stiffnecked. 17 For the LORD your God, He is God of gods, and Lord of lords, the great God, the mighty, and the awful [ha-el ha-gadol, ha-gibor v’ha-nora] , who regardeth not persons, nor taketh reward. 18 He doth execute justice for the fatherless and widow, and loveth the stranger, in giving him food and raiment. 19 Love ye therefore the stranger; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.
— from the Mechon-Mamre text, based on the 1917 JPS translation
These three prayer-links run the gamut of sentiments in this portion — and in most of Deuteronomy/Devarim, for that matter — with the exception of the out-and-out attacks on the People. This omission, I believe, is because the kind of sentiment represented in the final quotation above is more about Moses and his burdens than it is about the enduring relationship between God and the People.
Were Batya and Yocheved Jivin’ Too?
From Exodus onward, and in this long address, particularly, Moses lets out complaints that sound like nothing so much as Blues standards —
“As long as I have known you, you have been defiant toward the LORD”
“Nobody Loves Me But My Mother (and she could be jivin’ too).”
These express an emotional state of affairs which has its own veracity, regardless of whether the situation described ever, more objectively, occurred.
With that in mind, I once re-wrote Muddy Waters’ “Forty Days and Forty Nights” for Moses to sing:
Forty days and forty nights
when I met God on the mount
Covenant, all day long
on stone tablets I brought down
God of life, we need God so
why you sinned, I just don’t know.
Those forty days and forty nights
I fell right down and cried:
“They mess up all the time
but forgive them, ‘cuz they try.
Lord help me — it just ain’t right
I love the People with all my might.”
In addition to Moses’ personal Blues, God and the People sing their own, I think, at various points in the narrative. And the Avot blessing of the Amidah might be seen as an attempt to align those narratives and those Blues, at least temporarily, into one song.
What You Ain’t Got
In his commentary on the Avot blessing in My People’s Prayer Book: The Amidah,* Elliot Dorff (“theological reflections”) notes:
The [first] three blessings [of the Amidah] identify the parties involved in the prayer and the relationship among them. In the Avot, we are descendants of the patriarchs (and matriarchs), not mere strangers who appear before God with nothing to speak for us except our own merits; we come, rather, with chasdei avot, our ancestors’ acts of loyalty and loving-kindness, that we hope God will remember for our good. –p.64
In the same volume, Marc Brettler (“our biblical heritage”) comments:
“Abraham’s God, Isaac’s God, and Jacob’s God” An infrequent biblical formula never found in biblical prayers, but central to God’s self-revelation to Moses in Exod. 3:6, 15, 16 and 4:5. Its prominence here reflects a rabbinic theological doctrine known as “merits of the ancestors” (z’khut avot), according to which the righteous actions of the patriarchs continue on to benefit their descendants. In biblical thought, it is the promise inherent in the covenant that continues through time, not the specific meritorious deeds of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. — p.60
Brettler also says, “In both Deuteronomy 10 and Nehemiah 9 ‘great, mighty and revered’ occurs in a context referring to the patriarchs (Deut. 10:15) or the covenant that God made with them (Neh. 9:32), so it was natural to include that phrase here” (p. 62).
In the Avot prayer, God’s greatness and might and reverence-inspiring-ness is recognized through God’s past actions (caring for the ancestors) and future promise (redemption). In a sense, God needs the People in order to be God — or, at least, exhibit Godliness to the world. Perhaps both God and the People need that z’khut avot in order to meet in prayer.
…which brings us to this, concluding, thought:
God’s presence to suffuse our spirits,
God’s will to prevail in our lives.
Prayer may not bring water to parched fields,
nor mend a broken bridge,
nor rebuild a ruined city.
But prayer can water an arid soul,
mend a broken heart,
rebuild a weakened will.
— Mishkan T’filah,* p.75, adapted from Abraham Joshua Heschel
“You can’t spend what you ain’t got, you can’t lose what you never had”
* See Source Materials for full citations and more information.
** The matriarchs are, of course, included in this blessing in many prayer books; in some, Bilhah and Zilpah are included as well. This is discussed briefly in Marcia Falk’s (“feminist theology”) commentary in the above-quoted My People’s Prayer Book (p.67).
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parodox in re-telling