This week’s parashah continues Moshe’s orations to the Israelites in the desert. The setting plays a crucial role in understanding what is going on: it is the eve of their transformation from a group of wandering tribes into a nation. It is no coincidence that this parashah is called “ekev”, literally “because of”. This parashah is about consequences:
|And it will be, because—ekev—you will heed these ordinances and keep them and perform, that the Eternal, your God, will keep for you the covenant and the kindness that He swore to your forefathers.||וְהָיָ֣ה | עֵ֣קֶב תִּשְׁמְע֗וּן אֵ֤ת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים֙ הָאֵ֔לֶּה וּשְׁמַרְתֶּ֥ם וַֽעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֹתָ֑ם וְשָׁמַר֩ ה’ אֱלֹהֶ֜יךָ לְךָ֗ אֶת־הַבְּרִית֙ וְאֶת־הַחֶ֔סֶד אֲשֶׁ֥ר נִשְׁבַּ֖ע לַֽאֲבֹתֶֽיךָ:|
The word “ekev” has the same root as akev (heel). The connotation is that of causality, of one thing coming “on the heels” of another, as a natural consequence.
The same word is used further on to spell out the opposite consequence, thus framing the “fine print” of the Covenant:
|If you forget the Eternal your God and follow other gods to serve them or bow down to them, I warn you this day that you shall certainly perish; like the nations that the Eternal will cause to perish before you, so shall you perish—because (ekev) you did not heed the Eternal your God.||וְהָיָה אִם־שָׁכֹחַ תִּשְׁכַּח אֶת־ה’ אֱלֹהֶיךָ וְהָלַכְתָּ אַחֲרֵי אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים וַעֲבַדְתָּם וְהִשְׁתַּחֲוִיתָ לָהֶם הַעִדֹתִי בָכֶם הַיּוֹם כִּי אָבֹד תֹּאבֵדוּן׃ כַּגּוֹיִם אֲשֶׁר ה’ מַאֲבִיד מִפְּנֵיכֶם כֵּן תֹאבֵדוּן עֵקֶב לֹא תִשְׁמְעוּן בְּקוֹל ה’ אֱלֹהֵיכֶם׃|
The Ways of God
Moshe emphasizes again and again, from a variety of different directions, that the new nation will prosper and inherit the Land only if it adheres to “the ways of God”.
|For if you keep all these commandments which I command you to do them, to love the Eternal, your God, to walk in all His ways, and to cleave to Him, then the Eternal will drive out all these nations from before you, and you will possess nations greater and stronger than you.||כִּי֩ אִם־שָׁמֹ֨ר תִּשְׁמְר֜וּן אֶת־כָּל־הַמִּצְוָ֣ה הַזֹּ֗את אֲשֶׁ֧ר אָֽנֹכִ֛י מְצַוֶּ֥ה אֶתְכֶ֖ם לַֽעֲשׂתָ֑הּ לְאַֽהֲבָ֞ה אֶת־ ה’ אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶ֛ם לָלֶ֥כֶת בְּכָל־דְּרָכָ֖יו וּלְדָבְקָה־בֽוֹ: וְהוֹרִ֧ישׁ ה’ אֶת־כָּל־הַגּוֹיִ֥ם הָאֵ֖לֶּה מִלִּפְנֵיכֶ֑ם וִירִשְׁתֶּ֣ם גּוֹיִ֔ם גְּדֹלִ֥ים וַֽעֲצֻמִ֖ים מִכֶּֽם:|
And what is the way of God? The Talmud (Sotah 14a) expounds on the phrase “to walk in his ways” as indicating Imatatio Dei:
God clothes the naked, as it is written: “God made for Adam and for his wife coats of skin, and clothed them” (Genesis 3:21); so should you too clothe the naked.
God visits the sick, as it is written: “God appeared to him by the Oaks of Mamre” (Genesis 18:1); so should you too visit the sick.
God comforts mourners, as it is written: “It came to pass after the death of Abraham that God blessed Isaac his son” (Genesis 25:11); so should you too comfort mourners.
God buries the dead, as it is written: “He buried him in the valley” (Deuteronomy 34:6); so should you too bury the dead.
This is hinted at when Moshe points out that “God will not be bribed and will not show favor”, rather, just as he champions the cause of the weakest members of society, so must you do the same:
|He executes the judgment of the orphan and widow, and He loves the stranger, to give him bread and clothing. You shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.||עֹשֶׂ֛ה מִשְׁפַּ֥ט יָת֖וֹם וְאַלְמָנָ֑ה וְאֹהֵ֣ב גֵּ֔ר לָ֥תֶת ל֖וֹ לֶ֥חֶם וְשִׂמְלָֽה:
וַֽאֲהַבְתֶּ֖ם אֶת־הַגֵּ֑ר כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם
The Arc of History Bends Toward Justice
Justice is not merely an individual or societal issue; it has historical consequences. The events now unfolding on the eve of the Israelites’ ascent to the Land are the fulfillment of the Covenant which God made with Avraham at the Brit bein haBatarim, and renewed with his son and grandson. This is made clear by Moshe’s choice of words: Avraham was told that through his descendants the nations of the world would be blessed, “because—ekev— he feared and obeyed God in the matter of Akeda:
(התברכו בזרעך כל גויי הארץ עקב אשר שמעת בקלי)
A generation later, Yitzkhak is told that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars and would be a blessing to the nations, because —ekev—Avraham “kept My charge: My commandments, My laws, and My teachings.”
(עקב אשר־שמע אברהם בקלי וישמר משמרתי מצותי חקותי ותורתי)
But the connection goes back even farther. We are told that God chose Avraham because “I know him: he will teach his children to do righteousness and justice—tzedek u’mishpat.” God is in effect saying, I have a stake in the choices of this nation and in its future.
The opposite of tzedek umishpat is embodied in the nation of Amalek. A nation that preys on the weak and vulnerable may have temporary ascendancy, but is destined to collapse of its own corruption in the end. Such a nation will have no historical continuity because it operates against the very principles of national survival.
This, our parashah hints, is exactly what has happened to the once-prosperous nations that the Israelites will, over time, displace. Three times Moshe repeats: “It is not because of your virtue that God is displacing these nations in your favor. Rather it is because of their failings.” These nations were an evolutionary dead end. God’s love of justice equates to this: that just societies have a future.
The central message of Parashat Ekev has been borne out time and again. In 1853, Theodor Parker, an American minister, used a similar logic to argue for the abolition of slavery:
Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.
The Perils of Success
The danger is that when the Israelites are given the land “on a silver platter” and blessings are showered upon them, they may lose sight of cause and effect:
|Beware that you do not forget the Eternal, your God, by not keeping His commandments, His ordinances, and His statutes, which I command you this day, lest you eat and are sated, and build good houses and dwell in them, and your herds and your flocks multiply, and your silver and gold increase, and all that you have increases, and your heart grows haughty, and you forget the Eternal, your God, Who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, and you will say to yourself, “My strength and the might of my hand have accumulated this wealth for me.” But you must remember the Eternal your God, for it is He that gives you strength to make wealth, in order to establish His covenant that He swore to your forefathers, as it is this day.||הִשָּׁ֣מֶר לְךָ֔ פֶּן־תִּשְׁכַּ֖ח אֶת־ה’ אֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ לְבִלְתִּ֨י שְׁמֹ֤ר מִצְוֹתָיו֙ מִשְׁפָּטָ֣יו וְחֻקֹּתָ֔יו אֲשֶׁ֛ר אָֽנֹכִ֥י מְצַוְּךָ֖ הַיּֽוֹם:
פֶּן־תֹּאכַ֖ל וְשָׂבָ֑עְתָּ וּבָתִּ֥ים טֹבִ֛ים תִּבְנֶ֖ה וְיָשָֽׁבְתָּ:
וּבְקָֽרְךָ֤ וְצֹֽאנְךָ֙ יִרְבְּיֻ֔ן וְכֶ֥סֶף וְזָהָ֖ב יִרְבֶּה־לָּ֑ךְ וְכֹ֥ל אֲשֶׁר־לְךָ֖ יִרְבֶּֽה:
וְרָ֖ם לְבָבֶ֑ךָ וְשָֽׁכַחְתָּ֙ אֶת־ה’ אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ הַמּוֹצִֽיאֲךָ֛ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם מִבֵּ֥ית עֲבָדִֽים:
וְאָֽמַרְתָּ֖ בִּלְבָבֶ֑ךָ כֹּחִי֙ וְעֹ֣צֶם יָדִ֔י עָ֥שָׂה לִ֖י אֶת־הַחַ֥יִל הַזֶּֽה:
וְזָֽכַרְתָּ֙ אֶת־ה’ אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ כִּ֣י ה֗וּא הַנֹּתֵ֥ן לְךָ֛ כֹּ֖חַ לַֽעֲשׂ֣וֹת חָ֑יִל לְמַ֨עַן הָקִ֧ים אֶת־בְּרִית֛וֹ אֲשֶׁר־נִשְׁבַּ֥ע לַֽאֲבֹתֶ֖יךָ כַּיּ֥וֹם הַזֶּֽה:
To cement this lesson in the minds of his hearers, Moshe recounts the history of Israel and its wanderings, showing what led up to the present moment. What is happening now, he tells them, is the long-term result of the promise made to Avraham 400 years earlier. That promise is about to be fulfilled, but don’t expect open miracles—it will happen through the strength that God gives you to build your nation, and the justice with which you administer your affairs.
These are covert miracles; they could easily be mistaken for coincidence. Thus, Moshe reinforces the connection between historical memory and causation: Remember! Remember your wanderings in the desert and how you were cared for when you could not fend for yourself! Remember how you lost site of the mission and were nearly destroyed because of it. Remember—do not forget!
|Every commandment that I command you this day you shall keep to do, that you may live and multiply, and come to possess the land that the Eternal swore to your forefathers.||כָּל־הַמִּצְוָ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֨ר אָֽנֹכִ֧י מְצַוְּךָ֛ הַיּ֖וֹם תִּשְׁמְר֣וּן לַֽעֲשׂ֑וֹת לְמַ֨עַן תִּֽחְי֜וּן וּרְבִיתֶ֗ם וּבָאתֶם֙ וִֽירִשְׁתֶּ֣ם אֶת־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־נִשְׁבַּ֥ע ה’ לַֽאֲבֹֽתֵיכֶֽם:|
The strength of Moshe’s vision is shown in the fact it has been preserved in memory down through the ages, and has shaped memory itself to be the tool of its propagation, such that the encounter at Sinai is renewed again in every generation.
Moshe’s listeners may not have fully understood what he was trying to tell them. They did not have the perspective of the intervening centuries to see the truth of his vision.
But we do!
 This is not the first time someone has diagnosed success as one of the pitfalls of civilization, and a primary reason for the decline of a given culture. David P. Goldman makes a similar case in How Civilizations Die.