Friday, 11 August 2017 | 19 Av, 5777
The great Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, was all too aware of the harshness and heaviness of life, and particularly life in Israel. In one of his many poems of Jerusalem he writes:
“At times Jerusalem is a city of knives
And even the hopes for peace are sharp enough to slice into
The harsh reality and they become dulled or broken.”
This week’s parasha, by contrast, could be said to present the lightness of being and the capacity for renewal while not underestimating the gravity of life.
The name of the Parasha (Ekev) conveys the power of the light touch: the word eikev as Rashi suggests is linked to a heel which tramples. Don’t trample on the laws, says Moshe, but tread carefully, treat all of the commandments with sensitivity. In other words cultivate a nimble gait, develop the lightest touch, and nudge the world gently.
There are far too many who approach the world with a crude disregard, who treat the environment with crass indifference, who use words as blunt instruments, who relate with aggression. The sabre-rattling from North Korea and President Trump reflect an attitude of aggressiveness rather than diplomacy. It’s always easier to talk war than to talk peace but one can talk gently while carrying a big stick. Being diplomatic isn’t being weak, it’s being smart.
It’s also easy to use religion as a weapon of war rather than an instrument of peace. Islamic fundamentalism bears testimony to the enduring truth of Jonathan Swift’s acerbic comment that “we have just enough religion to make us hate one another but not enough to make us love one another.”
It’s not only the fanatics who use religion crudely. Thus in Jewish life it’s easy to use the words of Torah with harshness, to present the world of Torah and mitzvot as one heavy with threats and the fear of punishment. No wonder Rabbi Tzadok (Avot 4:7) would say: “Don’t make the Torah a spade with which to dig.”
The Parasha presents us with many examples of the value of lightness. To take one, the manna is the food of infinity; it reminds that an over- full and heavy stomach is unhealthy not only physically but also spiritually:
“He fed you with manna…to make you realize that man does not live by bread alone, but rather from all that comes out of G-d’s mouth” (Deut 8:5)
The Parasha also reminds us that while the land of Israel can be tough and uncompromising, it is also a good and benevolent place for the people of Israel.
Ekev reminds us to tread carefully with poise and balance (to be well-heeled!). In the words of WB Yeats “Tread softly because you tread on my dreams”.