Judaism 101: Does Parashat Ekev have a hedonistic message?

Posted on August 7, 2009

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It is a common practice in many congregations for lay members to volunteer to give a talk about the weekly Torah portion during the summer so that the rabbi can take a vacation and/or work on High Holiday sermons. On Shabbat Ekev ten years ago I gave the folllowing Davar Torah, and rereading it I think it holds up pretty well even though we are in the midst of a global recession and interest rates have changed from what they were then. My and my wife’s financial circumstances are more stable now; we replaced our audio cassette deck and VCR with a video disk player, have been car owners since 2004,  now own three air conditioners, and I am typing this article on a six month old Macbook. But we are still frugal creative types who appreciate simple pleasures. Here is my 1999 Davar Torah:

Last autumn The New York Times Magazine published a profile of Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic and author of the scholarly memoir Kaddish, in which the reporter asked Wieseltier, who decades earlier had married a Pakistani Muslim shortly after completing a doctorate in Jewish Studies, why someone with so strong a Jewish identification as he would marry outside the faith. (No, this isn’t going to be a sermon on intermarriage.) In his reply Wieseltier stressed the importance of “discovering one’s appetites and seriously pursuing them.” One of the themes of our parasha this week concerns appetites and their gratification, and amid the stern warnings of the consequences of disobedience is a remarkably Epicurean message. Parashat Ekev is rich and wide ranging, and rather than present a broad survey of this week’s portion I am going to focus on one verse, Deuteronomy 8:10, which forms the basis of theBirkat Hamazon, the Grace After Meals. Vachalta v’savata uverachta et adonai eloheicha al ha’aretz hatova asher natan-lach  “And you will eat, and you will be sated, and you will bless Adonai your God for the good land that God gave you.”  We are not simply commanded to eat and give thanks.  The key word in this verse is v’savata, “and you will be sated.”  Now, don’t you hate it when at a communal meal the leader starts singing Birkat Hamazon  just as you’re about to take the first bite of your dessert? The Deuteronomist had the psychological insight to realize that in order to give thanks with full kavanah (intent) we have to feel truly grateful, and before we can feel grateful we have to experience gratification: we must feel sated. This is an interesting commandment. God is saying, “Don’t just nibble; don’t sit at the table with your arms folded like a juvenile picky eater.  Eat! & don’t stop eating until you’re full, until you’re sated.” Our parasha also provides a vivid description of the land and its bounty. It specifically mentions the seven species, the seven foods that are harvested between Pesach and Shavuot which we are only permitted to eat if they are grown by fellow Jews. God has prepared a feast for us and does not want to see us stand around with our hands behind our backs like ungrateful and reluctant guests. We are commanded to partake fully! We are not just commanded to eat but indeed to be sated.

 

God isn’t only talking about eating.  How much does it take for us to feel gratified?  Another anecdote from The New York Times Magazine:  a couple of years ago there was an item about people who work on Wall Street and what they call “the number,” meaning the amount of money one has to have saved in order to retire early. Everyone has his or her own number.  If the long bond is at 6% then $10 million  will generate an annual fixed income of  $60,000. But someone who has been earning a quarter, a half, three quarters of a million dollars a year probably won’t feel satisfied with the kind of income with which some of us get by.  Some of them might be willing to tighten their belts and live on the $240,000 a year that $40 million earns in interest.  But retirement doesn’t mean forgetting about the street entirely; they will also require a few million more with which to continue to play the market.  And so, very few indeed ever do retire early; “the number” keeps growing.

 

We would each do well to ask ourselves what our number is. What does it take for us to feel gratified?  On the one hand, how much is enough?  On the other hand, when does contentment become complacency?  My personal situation may be unique. Where some people  are obsessively acquisitive, I compulsively avoid remunerative employment. By my early twenties I had already been fired from more jobs than many people hold in a lifetime. Unlike the Wall Streeters and unlike everyone else I know, there is no money in what I do well, and there is not much of a material nature that I wouldn’t forfeit to avoid the frustration and humiliation of having to apply myself to tasks at which I am all but certain to be found wanting.  I once read a book entitled “Do What You Love, The Money Will Come Later.”  Well, I’ve been doing what I love for years and still haven’t seen any money.  Nonetheless I’m grateful that I’m married to Shoshana, who is as frugal as I am, and who unlike me is multi-talented and earns enough to support us both comfortably if modestly.  We met and spent the first three years of our marriage in Israel and haven’t been back since we left 13 years ago.  In fact, if we don’t count Canada as “overseas” our only overseas vacation since we wed 17 years ago next month was a trip to visit family here in New York and Connecticut when we were still living in Israel. We’re both vegetarians, so most expensive restaurants don’t tempt us.  Since we purchased our co-op five years ago parts of the apartment remain unfinished.  We don’t own an air-conditioner or a car. Our VCR and audio cassette deck are in disrepair, and we have no plans to fix them.  Our home computer is a ridiculously slow six year old second hand Mac.  We work out at home with a sit-up bench, exercise mats, and free weights to save the expense of gym memberships.  In part because of shaky finances, for better or worse like the cartoon character in that Roy Lichtenstein painting we’ve forgotten to have children, the most expensive and potentially most rewarding of acquisitions.

 

Still, one has to eat, and since Shoshana is an excellent cook we eat well. Samuel Johnson, who suffered from numerous physical afflictions, found his greatest comfort in food.  His favorite dish was pork, and he was fond of saying he wished he were Jewish so that his delight would be greater still for being forbidden.  My mentor, the late William Matthews, once said that what sparked his own imagination and what he looked for in other people’s poems is an element of the perverse.  It seems to me there is something perverse in the paradox that God wants us to experience complete gratification before giving thanks, yet knowing full well that illicit pleasure is the most intense warns us that (S)He will zap us if we violate His/Her commandments in its pursuit.  God’s ways are indeed incomprehensible, but who does God think (S)He’s kidding?   Surely God knows that we know there is no correlation between morality and mortality.  Perhaps God’s playfully teasing us, has given us this set of arbitrary rules just so we can get that special “zing” when we violate one of them.  After all, there would be no illicit pleasures were there no prohibitions.  Which brings us back to Wieseltier who in “Kaddish” writes that it was in pursuit of his appetites that he stopped observing the commandments.  He also expresses some contrition, “It occurs to me that delinquency is such a waste of time: all those years spent extenuating, thinking, rethinking, apologizing, refusing to apologize, feeling guilt, hating the feeling of guilt. You can squander a lot of your soul not doing your duty.”  Two of the differences between Wieseltier and me are that I’ve not led as wayward a life, and that I’m not preoccupied with feelings of guilt.

 

But like him I have a real problem with any system that denigrates the life of the senses in favor of the life of the mind, and I concur with his critique of Rabbi Joseph “Soloveitchik’s account of the relation of ‘halakhic man,’ or the Jew who lives according to Jewish law, to the natural world.”

“There is no real phenomenon to which halakhic man does not possess a fixed relationship from the outset and a clear, definitive, a priori orientation,” Soloveitchik wrote. When a religious Jew “comes across a spring bubbling quietly,” he regards it for its fitness to serve as waters of expiation for a variety of human impurities.  When he “looks to the western horizon and sees the fading rays of the setting sun or to the eastern horizon and sees the first light of dawn,” he sees the obligations imposed by sunrise and sunset. When he “chances upon mighty mountains,” he is put in mind of the legal measurements that determine, in the rabbinic law of torts, a private domain.

And so on.  I cannot accept this.  It is dehumanizing.  Surely the senses precede the commandments.  If they do not, then the Jew is robbed not only of the pleasure in the physical world that is his or her natural right, but also of the opportunity to master that pleasure by infusing the physical world with metaphysical significance.  Soloveitchik’s analysis makes me want to bolt, to take back the physical world from its metaphysical significance.  Anyway, no human being lives in a single domain.  The choice between the physical and the metaphysical is the choice between air and water.  The senses serve religion and the senses offer respite from religion.

 

Whether we pursue them within or without the yoke of the commandments, may our appetites be healthy and sated, and may we give grateful thanks to God.

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