How To Be A Good Person According To The Bible
Parshat Eikev Summary
Eikev Torah Portion: Deuteronomy 7:12–11:25
Parshat Eikev parsha opens with a promise: If you follow God's laws, "then He will will keep for you the covenant and the kindness that He swore to your forefathers" (Deuteronomy 7:12), and He will shower blessing upon you. But there's something very perplexing about this promise. If you follow God's laws, then He will keep the covenant? What does that mean, "If... then...?" When God promised our forefathers — Abraham, Isaac and Jacob — that He would make their children fruitful and bring them to the Promised Land, it wasn't conditional, it wasn't contingent on later behavior — at least, it didn't seem that way!
It was a promise! "Hey forefathers, I'm going to do these great things for your descendants! You have My word" So then why is it presented here, in Parshat Eikev, as something that the people have to earn? If you're interested in this question, check out David Block's video, "Why Does The Nation Of Israel Merit The Land?" For more exploration, Ami Silver has his own take this question, and it all starts with his noticing that these opening lines of Parshat Eikev evoke one of the early stories of the forefathers in fascinating ways. Click here for his podcast, "Is This Another Akeidah?"
After that initial promise, the parsha goes on to detail exactly what kind of blessing will come to the people: children, ample food, and security in your land. Moses reassures the people that they shouldn't be afraid that they'll be outmatched by the nations of the land who seem stronger than them, because God is on their side. The God who fought for them in Egypt, taking on the most powerful monarch in the ancient world, will fight for them forever after. Therefore, Moses concludes: if, in the course of that warfare, you take idols and other graven images as booty, you must destroy it, you can't bring it into your house. Your job is to serve the one Almighty God, the one who protects you, and you must distance yourself from anything that might corrupt that service.
In the next part of Parshat Eikev, Moses discusses another spiritual "danger" that awaits the people once they enter the Promised Land, one which could potentially threaten their relationship with God. It's the danger of taking things for granted, and not appreciating what God has done for them. It's one thing to be grateful to God when God is making manna rain down for you miraculously from Heaven, as He did for 40 years in the desert, but what about when you enter the land and you have to work hard to farm your own grain and make your own bread and God's role seems invisible?
Maybe then you will be lured by the fallacy that "My strength and the might of my hand that has accumulated this wealth for me" (Deuteronomy 8:17). Imu Shalev and David Block explore this spiritual danger in their video, "Appreciating Our Creators," showing us how our desert experience was supposed to insulate the people against this danger, and offering a framework for how we can guard against it in our own lives.
In the next part of Moses' speech, he warns the people that it's "not because of your righteousness or because of the honesty of your heart that you come to possess their land" (Deuteronomy 9:5). According to Moses, it's because of the wickedness of the nations who deserve to be kicked out, and also because of the promise that God made to the forefathers.
(If you're wondering how this jibes with the whole introduction to Parshat Eikev, the idea that if the people behave properly, then God will bring them into the land... it's an excellent question. David Block notices the same thing and it is one of the paradoxes that he grapples with in his video, cited above, "Why Does The Nation Of Israel Merit The Land?")
As if to give proof that the people are not meritorious, Moses then proceeds to review some major stories of failure from their history — the Golden Calf; the incident at Tav'erah, Massah, and Kivroth Hata'avah; and the sin of the spies. The subtext seems to be, however, that even when the people sin, there is always the potential to achieve God's forgiveness.
At this point, Moses pauses to ask a grand question: "And now, O Israel, what does the Lord, your God, demand of you?" (Deuteronomy 10:12). It's an interesting question... because of course the Torah is filled with chapters upon chapters of descriptions of exactly what it is that God wants from us... but with this question, Moses seems to be suggesting that the whole of what God desires can be boiled down to some fundamental bullet points. As if to say: at the end of the day, what core qualities make us 'good' human beings in the eyes of God? So what is Moses' answer? What are his bullet points?
- to fear the Lord, your God,
- to walk in all His ways
- and to love Him,
- and to worship the Lord, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul, to keep the commandments of the Lord and His statutes, which I command you this day, for your good" (Deuteronomy 10:12-13).
Rabbi Fohrman notices something intriguing about this formulation. He notices that there's another place in the Torah — a somewhat famous passage from the Book of Micah — that attempts to answer the same question, but offers a somewhat different answer:
"It has been told you, O man, what is good, and what God requires of you: only:
- to do justice,
- and to love mercy,
- and to walk humbly with your God." (Micah 6:8)
Micah's list is even shorter, and while it shares some elements in common with Moses' answer, it has a distinctly different feel. What is the relationship between these two passages? What is the Torah's fundamental answer to the question: What does God fundamentally want from us? What core qualities make us 'good' human beings in the eyes of God? Rabbi Fohrman explores that question through a deep reading of each of these passages in his video, "What Does It Mean To Be A Good Person?"
And finally, Parshat Eikev ends with the famous second paragraph of the Shema prayer ("And it will be, if you hearken to My commandments" (Deuteronomy 11:13-21), and with a reiteration of the idea that clinging to God will ensure our well-being and safety.