Ekev: For-עבר in Between Worlds: Who Starts Counting after A.D.?

BS”D By Dvir Cahana August 7, 2020

Song: Double Heel-ix Ladder by Dvir
Art: Doula Identity by Briah

In the 3rd grade, my teacher entered the class in a cheery mood, with a big announcement prepared for all of us. She revealed that our new unit in math was multiplication. All I could remember next was utter pandemonium. In a harumph and a roar ecstatic celebration filled the room. Perhaps there was a tinge of irony in our over-dramatized reaction, but it was coated in a very authentic ebullience to expand the possibilities of our meager mathematic arsenals. Our scope was limited to addition and subtraction, and although we were well aware of the existence of little “X”s featured in the middle of equations, their functionality eluded us. And so with this new dimension to mathematics, we saw ourselves as aligning with the accomplished scientists of yesteryear and visualized the future paths that having this knowledge will enable. All of this would only be possible, so long as I took the mastery of learning these fundamental principles seriously. For our first assignment we were tasked to memorize the multiplication tables that we were given 1 through 12. I relished this opportunity: I obviously started with my 1s and my 10s (that didn’t take long), then I moved on to the 2s and 3s, brushed back up on my 2s, then made flashcards for my 4s. I wanted so badly to integrate this knowledge deep into my grey matter folds. Judging by the tumult that instigated by my teacher’s announcement, I was not alone in this sentiment. After having been given several weeks to learn the multiplication tables, I knew them like the back of my hand (I literally had some of them written on the back of my hand so I could brush up on them when I was in transit). I was jolted enthusiasm when I found out our teacher opted to change the format of our evaluation. The top of the page read “Math Minute” and our teacher assured us that we would not have to complete all 50 computations on the page. We had 60 seconds to fill in as many correct answers as we could. And so 60 seconds later, ¾ of my page was filled in, and I handed in my first Math Minute. After several “Math Minutes”, word got out who the overachievers were and a hierarchy began to form from the “Dumber with Numbers” all the way up to the elite Mathemagicians. 

Then, one faithful afternoon, my teacher decided to up the ante even further and arranged Countdown Duels. The format was King of the Court style where you stay in front of the class, until you’re bested. Low and behold the individual who had gotten the best on all of the math minutes was unbeatable in this arena as well. I watched, in awe, as the answers flowed from the teachers mouth to his chalk, and when it was my turn to slay the dragon, I stood no chance. My spirit was defeated, but the burning desire to find out how he had become our class’ resident multiplication expert would not fade. I needed to know what his special sauce was, and so during recess I confronted him and decided to prod the prodigal son. I bluntly asked him what his secret to getting so good at multiplication was. He explained to me that this was not his first exposure to multiplication tables, in fact, I was in the presence of a seasoned veteran in the field of computational arithmetics. His older brother had been teaching him math since he was in diapers (those many years prior). 

This revelation blew my mind. I never considered taking a peek into the crystal ball that was our upcoming curriculum. And the confirmation of this methodology’s utility, incentivized me to value the resource that I had in my older siblings. It was too late for me to get ahead in this current material, but when I got home, that day, I came to the realization that I had an impressionable pre-schooler that, with my help, can one day be the unslayable dragon in her class. I gathered all of my workbooks together and propped her up in the kitchen to begin our first lesson, but it did not take a minute before she had disappeared from the kitchen. The lesson plan morphed into a game of hide and go seek, which morphed into tag and morphed into a frustrated young Dvir, feeling ineffective in his attempt at giving his younger sibling a several year head start in Math. I tried several more times, without much success. She told me that she didn’t want an edge on her classmates and that she was perfectly content living in the moment.

At the time, I interpreted her philosophy as objectively wrong, I had proof in my classmate that learning the material ahead of time had undeniable rewards, however what I neglected to take into account was the fact that by always living in the future, you lose the excitement and the novelty of living in the present. Would there have been an outburst of excitement that first day that we discovered our new section in math, if all of us had already known multiplication – as was the case for the grand wizard mathemagician of our class? And as I began asking my older siblings every detail of their curriculums, down to the punchlines of the social experiments that their teachers prepared for the class, my life became a spoiler ridden movie, in which I was forced to go through the motions.

This week’s torah portion has a very consistent through-line. It continually asks the people to follow all of the Mitzvoth. It is in the opening line of the portion, and this motif recurs throughout the Parsha. In last week’s parsha we had the first section of the Shema, and in this Parsha we continue with the second section of the Shema that is known as the “Yolk of the Heavenly Mitzvahs” (Ol Malchut Mitzvoth). The Parshas name, Ekev, literally translates to mean reward, but it is also ¾ of the name of our forefather Jacob. I think there is a significant connection between Jacob and this parsha beyond the similarity in the words, because it is the third Parsha of the book of Dvarim, and he is the third forefather. The Eybeschutz Rebbe talks about the difference between Jacob and Abraham. He says that although Abraham is on a very high spiritual plane, that he is in constant conversation with G-d, there is something even more spiritual about Jacob in that he was never guided by G-d at all. His first interaction with G-d comes when he is 40 years old and on the run from his brother. The Eybeschutz Rebbe explains that Abraham needed G-d’s guidance at all times and needed G-d to direct his every move. We see this play itself out in a nearly absurd way, when he is instructed to kill Isaac, his destined successor. Abraham blindly heeds G-d’s commands with tunnel vision and does not question their implication. Jacob, on the other hand, was not supposed to receive the birthright, but harnesses his destiny when he trades for it with his brother, and tricks his father into giving it to him. Rabbi Hafter takes this character analysis one step further when he explains that the system of Mitzvoth is actually sub-optimal. We should not need to be commanded to do the right thing, we should not need rewards dangled in front of us to awaken good behaviour, and the blueprint should, in reality, come from within, as is the case with Jacob. But Jacob, choosing to take an unconventional path, also puts himself in very precarious situations both theologically and physically because he chooses to take a different route then that of his father and grandfather.           

I really love my father’s interpretation of the Shema Israel. The 6 word breakdown describes a choreography between humanity and G-d, that truly evokes a sense of self within the universe and a sense of G-d within us. G-d’s minimalism is an act of Tzimtzum, retraction, in order to allow the room for complete subjectivity and individuality to emerge. G-d’s minimalism creates an opportunity for us to infuse our own subjective poetry of infinity back into the objective collective. In this way, my father’s understanding of looking at this refining divine commitment as a core phrase in our theology is very apt.  However, there is also an interplay between the relationship with this prayer on a daily basis and the relationship to its position in the Torah, (which is read in the yearly cycle). Reading the Shema on a daily basis, serves as a grounding reminder of the subjective-objective disposition we must carry ourselves with on a daily basis. It is an anchor that serves as a daily meditative orientation. But its repetitiveness almost loses its sense when it starts to administer a tone of command. This is where the danger of Naziism is given space to sneak in, this is where unchecked communism can asphyxiate the words of the text. How do we prevent such a pivotal phrase from losing its panache and continue to elevate? We must pair it with its global meaning. It is the connector between past and future, beginning and end. It represents the starting point of life and the last moment of it as well. It sits on that liminal space of the doorway. It is a phrase that walks with the individual every day of their life, but it also touches on the seminal moments as well. This is within the mindspace of the individual’s lifetime, the rabbinic project and our own understanding of the insertion of Torah into the universal timeline that we are currently in the midst of.

On the other hand, Briah’s interpretation of Mount Sinai as an anchoring place for all Jews, also comes with its theological challenges. The implication that we all share the same collective history, means that we cannot approach the biblical/rabbinic texts without carrying the weight and the traumas of what is entailed in millenia of identifying with these texts. We cannot disentangle our collective history from ourselves. The unit disappears in the chorus Jewish history. While my father’s interpretation teeters the line of Judaism and Fascism, Briah’s teeters that of Judaism and Communism. While both interpretations are necessary and fundamental to basic theology, we cannot forget about the individual without the system, the individual (as Jacob was at Ever Yabak) who is completely alone. Briah’s interpretation of a shared past and my Father’s of a promised future evades the individual the agency of being able to exist within a wholly present present.

Parshat Ekev focuses on the need of a Mitzvoth system, but by connecting this parsha to Jacob, we confront the truth that this system is sub-optimal. In reality, my sister’s way of living in the world, where every turn is novel and the lustre of paradise never seems to wane is the true ideal way of interacting. This past week was her birthday and on her birthday I was able to check in and see how we’re both doing in life. I continue to plan several years into the future and am planning to be a Jewish leader in my own right, but her ability to live in perpetual authenticity, and her moral compass has turned her into an incredible leader. Earlier this year racial conversations have become at the forefront of our minds. Right after the tragic murder of George Floyd, many people were in shock but Sapira just followed her heart and acted. She organized a wildly fruitful conversation led by Jews of Colour across Canada. Just this passed week, on her birthday, she organized the second conversation and I am so inspired by her tenacity and ability to enable so much activity, and to really create space that empowered the JOC voices to be heard.

You can’t plan initiatives like this one years ahead. You cannot live in the future or in the past if you want to truly identify with the current zeitgeist, and you cannot act out of a duty that you don’t relate to if you want to give the necessary love that it takes to make this kind of conversation to blossom. All you can do is simply react in the moment and pursue the vision until it manifests into reality. It can truly only come from a place of self-determined moral duty. There is merit in having both Abrahamic and Jacobian paradigms to look up to in our forefathers. It was not immediately obvious, but I’m glad my younger sister was able to teach this to me, despite it not coming several years in advance.

Parshat Ekev

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