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Parashat Ekev 5776: About Reward and Punishment

When I was in Primary School I had a teacher I was really afraid of, I was so terrified of her. I suppose we all had one of those. She would yell and scream for every petty reason, to the point it looked like there was nothing we could do well. I was a shy and quiet boy, well I still am; and there were many times that I didn’t understand properly the lesson or I made mistakes because I was afraid of asking her. I thought that if I ask she would yell at me and I paid for my fear with lower grades. In Parashat Ekev we encounter a God that is hard to us. This God, that the scholars recognized as the dominant understanding of God in the book of Devarim, is a God of “If-Then”, a God of rage and punishment. He is hard. The choice that God gives us in the Parashah is not a choice at all: “It will be if you are listening to these rulings, keeping and obeying them, Hashem your God will keep with you the covenant and mercy that he swore to your ancestors. He will love you, bless you and increase your numbers; he will also bless the fruit of your body and the fruit of your ground — your grain, wine, olive oil and the young of your cattle and sheep — in the land he swore to your ancestors that he would give you.” Or on the other side: “If you forget Hashem your God, follow other gods and serve and worship them, I am warning you in advance today that you will certainly perish”. The God from Parashat Ekev turns us into young children and expects us to respond to a choice of “if-then”, that is not really a choice, but an expression of power. When I read Parashat Ekev I feel again like a small child in front of my teacher, limited by fear, without daring to ask questions, to worry about my personal needs or to express my individuality. The thing is that people are not robots. We have souls that want to express themselves with creativity, minds that want to ask questions, bodies that sometimes ignore some rules. The model of “if-then”, of reward and punishment, ignores the fact that life is a process of growing: to grow up in height, to grow up in wisdom… and that process is personal and sometimes includes to deviate a little from the way and get into unknown places, even forbidden ones. The philosopher Robert Nozick wrote: “Because our lives continue for a long time we can then try different options and play with them. We can pursue certain traits in an intensive way without needing to completely renounce others we already know, we can always wait a little longer. Therefore we can aspire to a self-consciousness that develops”. Would the God of Parashat Ekev allow such a process of development? Maybe no, but there are expressions and understandings of Divinity elsewhere in the Torah that would give us that option. As the views of Moses about God changed during his life, so there are periods in our life when we need a commanding God, that we need the structure of a God that enforces laws to guide us through a time of hedonism in our lives when we have trouble controlling ourselves. Sometimes we feel rebellious, when we know very well what is the right thing to do, what God would expect from us to do, but we feel the need to do otherwise, to check our limits and our relationship with the God that we think we believe in. There are times that we must emphasize our will and times we can submit ourselves with humility to a higher purpose and power. Maybe that’s the reason that the Shema Yisrael, that we must read twice a day, we include a paragraph from Parashat Ekev: “And will be if you hear my commandments”, a classic model of “if-then” and reward and punishment, but also a paragraph from Parashat Vaethanan “And you will love Hashem your God”, that commands us to love God. We need both of them. When I was in Primary School I thought that I am not allowed to ask. When we grow up we learn that it is ok to ask, even questions that get us in trouble. When we get to teenage years we question everything. Growing up teaches us that there are more options beyond to obey or be punished. We know that in order to mature we must challenge the God of Ekev, because anyway the model of reward and punishment doesn’t work in real life, our daily experience is proof of that. We learn that God has 70 faces and the one from Ekev is but one of them. Our work is to grow up, to develop and ask the difficult questions of life and faith. But first of all, we must know that we are allowed to ask…

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