This week’s Torah portion is called Eikev, a word that, literally translated, can mean ‘as a result of.’ I know that Torah portion titles aren’t written thematically (they’re derived from a word in the first few verses of the section), but this one is pretty on point.
Everything in this text has to do with cause and effect — behave in this way, and you’ll see this kind of result. Be good, you get a reward. Be bad, and you won’t even believe the punishment. God is relaying this message through Moses, of course, and wow does he sound tired of reminding the Israelites to behave themselves. Moses sounds like my wife and I do after the 30th time we’ve explained to our toddler that, yes, today we also have to get dressed before breakfast. Yes, this time we are also taking our plates to the sink. No, you still can’t switch chairs eight times during a meal.
We aren’t a rules-heavy household, as I’ve mentioned in previous installations of this column. Exploration and creativity are significant values to my wife and me, as are independence and agency. We also don’t want to just adhere to a status quo or societal paradigm because it’s always been done a certain way. We’re pretty intentional about any rules we have; they’re pretty much all derived from one of three sources: Health, safety, or respecting yourself and others.
For example, it’s against the rules to climb from your chair onto the table and slide down the couch during lunch, because it’s disrespectful and also you could choke. See? Two values at play right there.
On the other hand, it’s totally okay to scale the couch on other occasions, as long as there’s an adult around to make sure the miniature adventurer doesn’t land on his noggin.
In addition to being pretty free and easy about the rules themselves, we also have all kinds of Feelings and Opinions about how to maintain them. There are, after all, as many disciplinary systems in the world as there are family units — even more, actually, considering plenty of parents disagree on these.
God shows no ambivalence when it comes to enforcement. The very first two verses of this portion sets the tone for the entire section: “And if you do obey these rules and observe them carefully, the Lord your God will maintain faithfully for you the covenant that He made on oath with your fathers. He will favor you and bless you and multiply you; He will bless the issue of your womb and the produce of your soil, your new grain and wine and oil, the calving of your herd and the lambing of your flock, in the land that He swore to your fathers to assign to you.” (Deuteronomy 7:12-13)
In other words, it’s in your interest to stay on the straight and narrow. But that’s not all. What happens if one should stray, you wonder? God has an answer for that as well, and it’s not pretty. “If you do forget the Lord your God and follow other gods to serve them or bow down to them, I warn you this day that you shall certainly perish.” (Deuteronomy 8:19)
Moses goes on to describe (again!) all the ways in which the Israelites have already let God down during their time wandering in the desert. They complained, they lacked faith, they built a golden calf instead of waiting patiently for the Ten Commandments. They were impatient and “stiff-necked” (read: stubborn). They whined. “As long as I have known you, you have been defiant toward the Lord,” says Moses in Deuteronomy 9:24. This is part of Moses’ long, drawn out goodbye speech, and it seems like he’s getting a lot of stuff off of his chest. Once more, he implores the Israelites to please behave themselves.
It’s this contractual logic that I think ends up failing both Moses and God. We do, after all, already know the end of this story — the Israelites enter Canaan and keep on sinning. That’s what will, eventually, lead to both exiles and the destruction of both temples (according to tradition). That same destruction that we recently honored on Tisha B’Av.
So, obviously, the “or else” structure isn’t working here. If we treat the Israelites as the kids and God and Moses as the co-parents (which is more than hinted at in Deuteronomy 8:5, “Bear in mind that the Lord your God disciplines you just as a man disciplines his son”), we might say that this is not a great strategy for reining in the kids.
I know a lot of wonderful parents who use punishment in their disciplinary efforts. My wife and I, though, try not to. We absolutely use consequences, which we see as different. For example, if you throw that thing one more time after I’ve told you I’ll take it, you can’t play with it anymore. Not because you deserve to suffer (which is the essence of punishment), but because it’s disrespectful to the object and to us, and that object will break if you throw it.
We don’t want our kid to follow a rule so that he doesn’t let us down — guilt should never be a part of discipline — instead, we hope that we can teach him why the rule is there in the first place. If I can’t explain the rule, well, maybe that rule needs to be reconsidered.
I think the spiritual question that arises from this week’s Parsha is one that applies to parenthood, but also to every one of our adult lives. Do we adhere to societal norms or rules and laws because they’re the right thing to do, or are we motivated by fear and guilt? It’s a question that shifts and stretches and reshapes itself every day, and it’s one that’s worth examining.
Uprooting the guilt-and-fear-motivated actions from my daily life is probably going to be a lifelong journey. Toxic thoughts are like those darn weeds in my front yard — no matter how many I pull up, there are more sprouting all the time. As I take on the practice of mental weed-control, however, I’m also trying to create a situation wherein those thought patterns (or less of them) take root in my kiddo’s head in the first place. I’ll probably never get them all, but Lord knows I can try.