This week’s Torah portion, Eikev, begins relating God’s promise of blessing to the people of Israel. They are about to enter the Promised Land, where God will increase the yield of their harvests and the fertility of their families and livestock if they listen to God. One blessing after another flows through the first verses. Health, Wealth, Military Might, Divine Protection, Fertility and Regional Dominance — this litany promises it all to the children of Israel. But in a sudden shift, God reminds Israel not to get so comfortable that they forget the God who brought them here.
“Take care lest you forget the Lord your God and fail to keep God’s commandments, rules and laws which I enjoin upon you today. When you have eaten your fill, and have built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own has prospered, beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget the Lord your God — who freed you from the land of Egypt, the house of bondage … and you say to yourselves, ‘My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me’” (8:11-14, 17).
We live in a time of abundance, in a country of excess and in a community of consumption. It is not a stretch to say that these words were directed straight at us! The impulse to look at our success and prosperity, to see it as purely a product of the work of our hands is natural, particularly in a materialist culture that embraces ideas like “prosperity theology” — the concept that what God wants most is for us to be wealthy and comfortable.
In contrast, Parshat Eikev argues that none of our success can be claimed as purely our own doing. A story is told of the Chofetz Chayim that a wealthy individual came to him and boasted that God had given him tremendous wealth, so much so that he lacked nothing. The sage instructed him: “Well, then you should devote a few hours every day to Torah study.” The individual responded, “No — I don’t have time for that. I’m way too busy!” The Chofetz Chayim responded, “If that’s the case, then you are truly the poorest of the poor, because your time does not belong to you. If your time is not your own, then what do you have? There is no person who is poorer than one who is poor in time” (Y. Yefet quoted in Torah Gems).
Our society teaches us that every moment must be productive in order to be worthwhile. To make, buy, sell, create and all of the other terms of trade are the only ways that we justify our existence. While working and earning a living are unquestionably important, we need to be careful lest we become victims of our own success. It is possible to spend so much time making a living that one never really feels alive. We need to feed our spirits, our hearts and our minds just as much as we seek to set our table with food for the body. Our Torah portion reminds us as well “It is not by bread alone that a person survives — but by anything that comes from God.”
Rabbi Craig Axler is spiritual leader of Temple Isaiah in Fulton.