Wednesday, August 20, 2008

We Are Not Snakes: Parshat Eikev 5768

One way of understanding Jewish life is that the whole system, all the mitzvot, all the Torah, all the Jewish avenues for improving one’s character, everything, exists to help us establish and grow in our relationship with God.

Just as the ideal place to develop and strengthen our relationship with our spouse is in the privacy of our home, there is a physical location that is the ideal place to come close to God. There is one specific place where God has promised us, over and over again, that we can best nurture our relationship with Him. That place is the Land of Israel. It says in Parshat Eikev, the Land of Israel is: A Land that the Lord your God seeks out; the eyes of Hashem, your God, are always upon it, from the beginning of the year to year’s end (Deuteronomy 11:12)

God pays very close attention to the Land of Israel (the eyes of Hashem, your God, are always upon it, from the beginning of the year to year’s end) and, as a result, Israel has an indescribable spiritual quality that enables Jewish people to feel the presence of God more deeply. It’s as if Jerusalem is God’s living room. But if God wants the Jewish people to feel connected to Him in Israel, why does life there seem so much harder than it is in Baltimore?

In the story of Adam and Eve, all three players were punished. The snake was punished with the curse that, henceforth, his meals would consist of the dust of the earth. Considering how close a snake’s mouth is to the ground, this punishment seems hard to understand. After all, for the snake, everywhere he looks, there’s lunch! In what way is that a curse?

Imagine sending your daughter off to college in a distant state. Some parents might give her enough money at the start of the year to sustain her throughout the year. But wiser parents know that if they give their daughter expense money in smaller amounts, they can guarantee that they will hear from her periodically. And when she calls to ask for a cash infusion, there is an opportunity to talk about her life in college and to further build on the parent-child relationship.

If you consider the matter, you will see that the snake’s curse is the worst curse possible. God has, in effect, said to the snake, “Leave Me alone. I don’t want to hear from you. I’m going to give you whatever you need to sustain your life so that you won’t need to call upon Me.” Some people turn to God only in moments of crisis, in moments of lack. Since God wants to have a relationship with us, sometimes God sends us trials exactly so that we will turn to Him. But He wants no such relationship with the snake, so the snake feels no lack.

Similarly, everywhere else but the Land of Israel, things seem to proceed according to a natural order. You plant and you harvest. You work hard and you earn a respectable salary. It’s human nature, in such a world, to forget that all blessings come from God. Like the snake, like the middle-class American shopping at WalMart, we get what we need with relative ease, so we tend to forget about God. But we are not snakes. God wants to hear from us.

In Israel, life’s daily challenges force us to acknowledge that we are dependent on God for everything. It seems paradoxical that life is more challenging in the place God directs so much of His attention. But it is that way exactly because God wants us to ask Him for what we need. And He knows that, in Israel, this awareness is more easily achieved.

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