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Saturday, September 25, 2021

Rwanda’s response to COVID-19 brings out the need to prepare and learn from practice

Wash your hands, wear your face mask and practice physical distancing. These COVID-19 safety measures by the World Health Organization (WHO) will probably go down in the World’s history as the most repeated and translated words of the year 2020.  Since December 2019, COVID-19 has imposed itself onto the World forcing everyone to rethink the…
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    Parshat Hashavua: Grounding ourselves

    This week’s Torah portion, Eikev, opens with the phrase vehaya eikev tishme’oon,” which can be translated as “And when you obey” (Deuteronomy 7:12). One of the joys of translating, interpreting and understanding the Torah is in the richness of its words, containing so many strata of meaning. The word eikev, which also gives our parsha its name, is case in point. The three-letter root, or shoresh, of eikev is ayin-koof-bet, meaning “heel, deceitful, overreach.”

    Rashi’s commentary on our opening verse in this instance focuses on “heel” as the operative meaning of the word eikev: “If even the lighter commands which a person usually treads on their heels [i.e., which a person is inclined to treat lightly], you will listen to do.” We are not to rank the 613 mitzvot. They are all important.

    Rabbi Ellie Munk writes, “Indeed, can one say that the role of the lungs, or heart, or kidneys, or stomach or liver in the human body is more important than the others? The ‘organism’ that is the Torah obeys the same rule and could not exist if even one of its constituent elements was abandoned.”

    Another way to understand eikev is “on the heels of,” connecting the opening of our parasha to the end of the previous parasha (Torah portion). Etz Hayim adds that the word eikev frames the beginning of the parasha as a literary unit, with the word eikev then found in verse 8:20.

    Ayin-koof-bet is also the shoresh of the name Ya’acov, the patriarch Jacob. We learn about his name in the birthing scene with his twin brother, Esau: “Then his brother emerged holding on the heel of Esau, so they named him Jacob.” (Genesis 25:26) From birth, Jacob is considered a heel; someone who is contemptibly dishonorable. He lives up to that essence of his name in the first chapters of his life.

    Only after the tables are turned on him by his deceitful uncle Laban does Jacob confront his darker self. That process culminates with the wrestling scene on the banks of Jabbok River with an entity he describes as “a Divine being.” During that encounter, his name is changed from Jacob/heel to Yisrael/Israel – “one who wrestles with beings Divine and human.” (Genesis 32:29-31)

    Amy Gabriel, a researcher at the Center for Hebraic Thought, offers this interesting insight: “The stories of Achilles and Jacob also share important similarities: Both deal with the issues of human weakness, of struggling with fate (or providence), and of the often mysterious will of the Divine.”

    Jacob’s development from being named and acting as a deceitful heel to a wrestler with Divine beings is considered a model paradigm of spiritual growth. Many religions, including Judaism, elevate the spiritual over the physical. How we understand a famous verse from this week’s parasha is such an example. We read that “a person does not live by bread alone.” (Deuteronomy 8:3).

    BEFORE WE examine the meaning of the text, Rabbi Marc Saperstein makes the following fascinating and important point about translating: “At Harvard Divinity School, I once heard a Chinese professor of religion comment that those who translate the Bible into Chinese have to make a fundamental decision about whether to render the familiar verses by the Chinese equivalents of ‘Man does not live by bread alone’ and ‘Give us this day our daily bread’ (Matthew 6:11), or to render them as ‘Man does not live by rice alone’ and ‘Give us this day our daily rice.’ To use the Chinese word for ‘bread’ – which is nonexistent in the Chinese diet – would immediately suggest that the biblical text comes from an alien culture, something that the Chinese may well think of as applying to others, but not directly to them. Substituting the word for ‘rice’ conveys the meaning in a manner that feels much more inclusive, yet it loses the historical setting of the passage. This is a significant issue in translation: Do you keep the cultural markers of the original text or do you render its meaning in terms familiar to the culture of the new reading community?”

    At face value, our verse seems quite clear – there is more to life than physical sustenance, represented by bread, in this biblical sentence; we are also sustained spiritually. However, we need to read the fuller context of our verse to see its true meaning (Deuteronomy 8:2-3): “Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these 40 years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep God’s commands. God humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that a person does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”

    As Rabbi Saperstein says, the meaning of the verse within its context is, “You don’t need bread, you can survive physically on something else. That’s very different from what we assume it to mean.” The more spiritual interpretation of the text takes precedence because of the primacy religion places on spirituality over the physical. Yet perhaps the lesson here is that when we focus on the spiritual at the expense of the physical, we can also lose out.

    A deeply religious and spiritual life contains the quest, the longing toward the transcendent, the pull to Something greater than who we are. It can be a very powerful pursuit that can give the individual a deep sense of purpose, as well as being grounded with feelings of wholeness and contentment. These are all-important human qualities for living a fulfilled and meaningful life. And yet, when we allow the spiritual to eclipse the physical, do we sometimes miss, ignore or misunderstand those standing next to us?

    Yes, we want to emulate Jacob, who becomes the wrestler on the spiritual plane. Yet we also need to remain grounded, our heels touching the earth, the people and the reality in which we also live. ■

    The writer is rabbi emeritus of the Israel Congregation, Manchester Center, Vermont, and a faculty member

    of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies

    and Bennington College

    %

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