Parashat Eqev

By Rabbi Eric Hoffman

Someone was leading worship in the presence of the
Talmudic sage Rabbi Chanina. In the Avot
benediction he extended the string of adjectives for
Ha-Eyl: ‘the God, the great, the heroic, the
awesome, the mighty, the strong, the fearless . . .’
and on he went. Rabbi Chanina waited until he had
finished. Then he said, ‘Have you exhausted all the
praises of your Master? We couldn’t even say the
first three, ‘the great, heroic and awesome God,’ if
Moses had not said them (in this week’s sedra,
Ekev, Deut.
10:17) and the Men of the Great
Assembly had not ordained them in the Avot
benediction!’ (Neh. 9:32) Once we start
describing God, we ought never to be able to stop,
so instead of imposing our own arbitrary limits on
God’s limitless goodness, we accept the formulation
of Torah and tradition. [BTBerakhot 33b]

These Men of the Great Assembly are actually seen
as restoring the fullness of Moses’s spare three words,
‘the great, the heroic and the awesome.’ For the
prophet Jeremiah was noted praying, ‘the great and
heroic God,’ omitting ‘awesome,’ because idolators
were dancing on the site of the destroyed Temple.
(Jer. 32:18) And Daniel addressed God
praying, ‘the great and awesome God,’ leaving out
‘heroic,’ because for seventy years His children
were subjugated by foreigners. (Dan. 9:4)
To these deletions the Men of the Great Assembly
said, ‘To the contrary: It is God’s supreme heroism
by which He controls His inclination to smash the
evildoers, and it is God’s abundant awesomeness by
which one nation is able to endure among all
others.’ [BTYoma 69b]

And so, what we have in our Avot benediction
are the very same words that Moses uttered in our
sedra, which were diminished by prophets of
truth responding to the catastrophe of
Hurban Habayit, the destruction of
the
First Temple, but reinstated by the forerunners of
the Rabbis in the hopeful spirit of the
haftarah for this Shabbat Ekev,
wherein God says, ‘I, above all, shall not forget
you.’ (Isa. 49:15)

After his threefold description of God, Moses
describes God as the One ‘who shows no favor and
takes no bribe.’ These words, however, are not
included anywhere in our regular prayer. The theme
of these words and those which follow in the next
verses (10:18-19) is God’s fairness. If they were
good enough for Moses, why do we not find them in
the prescribed prayer of Torah and tradition?

The angels who minister before the Holy One blessed
be He found a conflict between these words of Moses
and the third line of Birkat Kohanim, the
daily Priestly Benediction, ‘May the Lord show
favor to you and grant you peace.’ (Num.
6:26)
If God, in His supreme fairness, does not show
favor to one party over another, why should the
Kohanim urge the Lord to do just that, that
is, how can they bribe God with their prayer to show
Israel favor?

One answer, by Rav Avira, points to Israel’s
observance of another verse in our sedra,
‘When you have eaten your fill, bless the Lord your
God for the good land which He has given you.’
(Deut. 8:10) This is the commandment for
Birkat Hamazon, the Grace after Meals. Even
though God’s requirement to trigger the benediction
is satiety, Israel has been more exacting upon
itself by offering the benediction after only a
mouthful of food. Given Israel’s rigor in observing
this mitzvah, ‘How can I not show her favor?’
says God. [BTBer. 20b]

Normally, God does not show favor and models
fairness for His human children: in judgment between
human litigants, judges should not take bribes and
show favor. Yet we dare not include this attribute
of God in the Avot benediction, when we are
introducing ourselves to our divine Sovereign as
members of the family of Israel, since the
benediction of the Kohanim endorses Israel’s
hope of favor from the divine Judge because of
Israel’s extraordinary devotion to Him.
Unfortunately, Rav Avira’s solution might offend
some for its inconsistency between God as Model of
fairness and God as Friend of Israel. It also
troubles those who question the efficacy of God’s
favor to Israel in the shadow of the catastrophes of
Jewish history.

Elsewhere in the Talmud an anonymous solution is
offered. We are dealing with two verses of the
Torah which seem to be in conflict: God shows no
favor and takes no bribe (Deuteronomy 10:17
of our sedra) and God instructs the priests
to pray for God’s favor and gift of peace to Israel
(Numbers 6:26). So the Talmud says: one
verse applies to the situation before God has
rendered His verdict while the other applies after
the verdict. [BTNid. 70b] But which verse
applies to which? Typically, the Talmud does not
make that clear. Tosafot suggest that God does not
show favor, neither to Israel nor to the other
nations after the verdict. But for Israel God
endorses the Priestly Benediction’s appeal for His
favor because He enters with Israel lifnim
mishurat hadin
, before the strict justice of the
law, i.e., to obtain a favorable judgment before the
verdict. But Tosafot’s interpretation, being in
harmony with Rav Avira’s answer, still cannot answer
the objections we noted above: inconsistency
between
God as Model of fairness and Friend of Israel and
skepticism about God’s favor to Israel in history.

Therefore, consider assigning the verses, as they
apply to Israel, so that God does not show favor
even to Israel before the verdict. Yet He encourages
us to seek His special favor after the verdict. If
this is the meaning, then the apparent conflict
between God’s fairness and favor is wiped away with
the understanding, already proclaimed by the
Prophets before and after the Exile, that Israel has
indeed suffered as a result of God’s verdict but is
not abandoned, that the divine favor may still rest
upon Israel to recover and rebuild. God judges
Israel without undue favor. After the judgment
God’s favor is extended to Israel in response to
Israel’s devotion.

As an annual remembrance, God’s verdict of
destruction is now behind us and restoration lies
ahead during the seven weeks leading up to the
renewal of the year. Israel, like the nations,
stands at the bar of God’s justice, but after the
verdict Israel goes home with God’s favor.
Likewise, at the beginning of the Tefilah,
our thrice-daily prayer, the Avot benediction
cites God’s greatness as a combination of His heroic
forbearance of the nations and awesome support of
Israel. Our ensuing petitions assume God’s fairness
in judgment, but we do not articulate Moses’s
formulation of God’s not showing favor. For we are
Israel, hopeful of God’s favor, as the
Kohanim conclude the Tefilah with
their petition of God’s favor and of shalom.

Thus may the week conclude for all of us: with God’s
favor and Shabbat Shalom, a Sabbath of peace.
Amen.