Parashah Ponderings

Being Our Own Worst Enemy

Parashat Eikev / פרשת עקב

Deuteronomy 7:12 – 11:25

As the People of Israel stand poised to enter the land that God had promised them, they learn yet another important lesson about gratitude and humility. In Parashat Eikev, Moses exhorts the people to observe God’s commandments upon entering the land so that they may “thrive and increase and be able to possess the land…” (Deut. 8:1). At the same time, Moses reminds Israel how God cared for them in the wilderness, despite their having angered God on several occasions. Indeed, Moses adds, “it is for not any virtue of yours that that the Lord your God is giving you this good land to possess” (Deut. 9:6). God is a God of forbearance who is bringing Israel into the Land because God loves them, as an act of grace, not because they necessarily deserve all that God has given them or will continue to give them.

Moses continues: “Remember, never forget, how you provoked the Lord your God to anger in the wilderness: from the day that you left the land of Egypt until you reached this place, you have continued defiant toward the Lord” (Deut. 9:7). Should Israel forget God’s beneficence and come to believe that they have brought prosperity on themselves, they should think again. Should they forget God’s acts of hesed – lovingkindness – toward them and assume an attitude of haughtiness and entitlement, they will begin to ignore the commandments and spurn God, thus, provoking God’s wrath in a way they couldn’t possibly have imagined. In short, nothing good could come from taking their relationship with God for granted.

Where I see this point being made most dramatically is in the phrase, “Remember, never forget.” The Hebrew here is “Zechor. Al tishkach.” “You are to remember your tendency to anger God. Don’t forget all that you’ve done to put your relationship with God in jeopardy. This is serious business, folks. You don’t want to keep getting on God’s bad side after all that God has done for you from the time God freed you from bondage in Egypt until now.”

Anyone familiar with Israel’s battles during the exodus from Egypt will recognize the phrase “Zechor. Al tishkash.” which is used elsewhere in the Torah, albeit in a slightly different grammatical form and separated by several verses. In chapter 17 of Exodus, we read how Israel did battle with a nomadic tribe of Edomites known as the Amalekites and were victorious. Later, in Deuteronomy chapter 25, Moses recalls that event: “Remember (Zachor) what Amalek did to you on your journey” (Deut. 25:18), i.e. they attacked the weakest Israelites – the elderly, the infirm, the weak – from behind. “Therefore, when God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget (Lo tishkach)!” (Deut. 25:19). When faced with an ever-present reality of being surrounded by enemies, Israel is told “Remember… Don’t forget.”

What are we to make of the dual use of this phrase “Zechor. Al tishkash.” — once in reference to the Amalekites; once in reference to Israel’s own transgressions against God? Just as Israel needs to be wary of external threats to their existence, like the Amalekites, they must also be wary of internal threats, threats like hubris, entitlement, and becoming disconnected from their God. In other words, Israel must not become its own worst enemy.

In our lives, how often do we find ourselves becoming our own worst enemies, impeding our own progress, or worse, bringing about our own downfall? We develop habits, attitudes, behaviors that impede our functioning. We strive for success in all we do, yet sometimes we encounter obstacles that we ourselves create. And while we might believe that the world is our oyster, the reality can be quite different. Life is full of setbacks. In fact, sometimes it seems that the odds are stacked against us. But we forget that because of how we go through the world, we may be the very thing that brings us down.

Like our ancestors before us, none of us is entitled to “thrive and prosper.” Success requires hard work and self-discipline. It also requires an attitude of humility and gratitude. The moment we fail to remember how interconnected we all are, the moment we forget God’s grace-filled presence in our lives, we risk becoming lone agents in the world and struggling for own survival. We must remember and not forget that it is through the outstretched arms of friends, family, co-workers, teachers, and others, that we are strengthened. These are the outstretched arms of God, for which we must be grateful. Remember. Don’t forget.

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