Parshat Ekev, like the parashot that precedes it, tells the story of the Jewish people in the wilderness. Although it contains a few mitzvot, it is primarily a review of the past and a look into the future of the Jewish people. However, whereas the center of Parshat Va’etchanan features the giving of the Torah and the events surrounding it, the center of ­Parshat Ekev features the sin of the Golden Calf and the other sins of Israel in the wilderness. In the following parashot, the Torah goes on to discuss ­mitzvot, some of which appear for the first time, and some of which reiterate and supplement previously given mitzvot.

The Torah needed to recount the major events because many of them occurred in the first and second years after Israel had left Egypt, and most of Moses’ current audience could not clearly remember all these events. Some of the people were very young then, and many were not even born yet. These people who are about to enter the Land are members of a new generation; for them, Egypt is either an old memory or a place known only from stories told by their parents. In contrast, their present setting is very strange, almost timeless, a state in which they encamp, remain static, or journey on without a clear direction and without a specific purpose.

Moses proceeds to plot the course that henceforth leads swiftly and directly to the Land of Israel. But for now, these people are suspended between a blurred past and an unclear, albeit promising, future. Both the encampment on the east side of the Jordan after its capture and the array of preparations for the entry into the Land and the war against its inhabitants are a continuation of the impermanent reality of the wilderness. In addition, during their stay on the east side of the ­Jordan, the People of Israel still primarily subsist on the manna, and they are protected and united as the Jewish people in one camp. Only upon their entry into the Land did the People of Israel’s world become more normal. To be sure, the entry is at first accompanied by overt miracles, but this develops into a diplomatic and military campaign that essentially takes place in the real world.

But the whole course of events in the first three parashot of the book of Deuteronomy is not just a historical report of the events that occurred. On the one hand, Moses adds explanations and supplements regarding matters known only to him, such as his negotiations with G‑d and his efforts to keep the People of Israel from annihilation. On the other hand, in addition to words of reproof relating to the past, he also includes general guidance for the future. His words contain great promises about victory and conquest, about expanded borders and prosperity, along with warnings not to become ensnared by arrogance and assimilation.

Moses’ words in the book of Deuteronomy, and particularly in this Parshah, are a mixture of very disparate elements. On the one hand, they are a detailed and precise reiteration of Israel’s sins in the wilderness. But on the other hand, they are words of encouragement: Despite all the sins and transgressions, Israel is G‑d’s people, over which He watches with His providence. The wilderness and its terrors are described at length, but so is G‑d’s sheltering protection. Recollection of the sins is always accompanied by recollection of the forgiveness. For the future, too, momentous promises are accompanied by multiple warnings.

Toward normalization

Unlike the previous Parshah, which deals primarily with exalted ­matters – the giving of the Torah, the Ten Commandments, and the section of Shema – Parshat Ekev deals with the breaking of the Tablets and with sins, and includes the section of “It shall come to pass, if you obey,”1 whose subject is not only intimacy and attachment but also the acknowledgement that people have to account for their actions.

This Parshah is situated at the point of transition from the special, unworldly existence of the wilderness to normalization. The Land of Israel is depicted here as a different world, one that seems to resemble our own ordinary world. Life, which until now has been under the general protection of G‑d’s providence and marked by certainty, is about to be individuated into deeds, policies, and personal responsibility, and marked with the awareness that there are no longer steps that transcend the actions of human beings.

In this context, special significance is attached to Moses’ remark to the People of Israel that they have left the land of Egypt, where water is always available, and are about to arrive in another land which “drinks water from the rains of heaven”2 – it relies on rainfall, which is uncertain by nature, to survive. The difference between the two lands boldly underscores the difference between life in the wilderness and the stark reality of life in the Land of Israel.

Although the Parshah also contains general guidance and matters dealing with G‑d and faith, they are only an introduction to themes that are repeated with greater clarity throughout the entire book. As long as the People of Israel are in the wilderness, they live under the Clouds of Glory and under the leadership of Moses, who is not entirely a man like any other man. Henceforth, they will be entering a world of personal responsibility and personal work, a world without a feeling of protection that shields them and saves them from their sins and errors and from all the troubles around them. In a certain sense, Moses’ words are like a father’s parting words to his maturing children, when he explains to them that from now on they are going to live in a different world, by no means a worse world but a world that is certainly different. From now on they will be entering a system of life in which people have to work for a living, conduct themselves properly so as not to be harmed, know their place, and not stray from the proper path.

A new generation

The Torah provides no account of how the People of Israel reacted to Moses’ long speech. The end of Deuteronomy features parting words, preceded by many chapters of guidance and instruction.

Upon Moses’ death, do the people feel like abandoned orphans? From the Torah’s final chapters, it appears that feelings are mixed. On the one hand, there is definitely pain and sorrow over the departure of their leader, the father of all Israel. On the other hand, one gets the sense that the listeners, like many young people at the beginning of their path, hear the words without truly internalizing them. Perhaps their inner sense tells them that all the reproof and moral instruction are true, but belong to the past. They find it difficult to relate to Moses’ warnings about pitfalls they are likely to encounter in the future, or about the new life they are about to lead.

The truth is that Moses does not want to discourage or dishearten them. All that he wants to do is to explain to them that they are now mature and on their own.

He concludes by saying, as many parents tell their children in such a situation, that all he wants is for them to get through life’s pitfalls in the best possible way. Although there may not always be good results, that is the way of the world.

A new generation has arrived, and after all the memories, instructions, and warnings, it will ultimately make its own way, its own mistakes, and its own improvements as well.