Rabbi Wolpe - ADL Impressions

August 4, 2023

For those of you who missed Off the Pulpit – it is back in a new form. Each week, I will be writing 4-500 words on the Torah reading, the parasha, for the ADL, and we are sending to the Off the Pulpit list. I hope you enjoy! Best Wishes — Rabbi Wolpe

Hate is generic, but hatreds are specific. Different kinds of prejudice play out in different ways, and the Jewish people have spent many centuries thinking about prejudice — and love — and how each flourishes in God’s world.

When the CEO of ADL, Jonathan Greenblatt, asked me to serve as the Inaugural Rabbinic Fellow of the organization, I realized it was an opportunity to enrich the Jewish teachings of this organization whose work to combat hatred flows from the sources of our tradition. Leviticus 19:17 alone may be taken as the motto of what we seek to accomplish: “Do not hate your brother in your heart.” We are all kin. While much of ADL’s work is monitoring those who would be destructive and taking action against them, ultimately we seek to change hearts. Through a weekly parasha commentary and other speaking and writing, I hope to bring this message from a century old organization and a millennial tradition to a divided and needy world.

It is my pleasure to share this parasha with you today.

Parasha Ekev

I was once told the story of philosopher Gregory Bateson’s daughter who, when she was young, asked her father: “Why does my room always get dirty but it never just gets clean?” The seemingly simple question hides a deep concept, that of entropy. Systems break down, from rooms that get dirty to cells that deteriorate and stars that explode. Everything, including the universe, is subject to decay. Effort is required to build but neglect is all that is needed to destroy.

Entropy may be a deep and complex idea, but it makes an almost unassuming verse in our parasha particularly fascinating. The Torah describes many different types of miracles. A miracle is a singular event, that is what makes it miraculous. Yet it contains a lesson intended to be enduring. The sea may have split only once, but many people throughout history have taken inspiration in dire and frightening situations from the salvation of the Israelites at the Red Sea. A single cruse of oil that lasted for eight days reminds us throughout the generations that resources can be more abundant than they appear and persisting in noble deeds yields unexpected results.

This week’s parasha, Ekev, has an almost pedestrian miracle. In speaking of the wandering through the wilderness, Moses says to the people, “The clothes upon you did not wear out” (Deut. 8:4). The need for this miracle is clear: there were no means to mend or make clothes in the desert. And presumably, the heat and sands were pretty tough on the Israelites’ garments. But what exactly are we supposed to learn from the fact that God was the ultimate couturier?

There is a spiritual defiance of the law of entropy. We expect clothes to wear out and memory to fade. But Jewish history has proven that certain things endure despite the universal law of decay. The empires that conquered Israel have been subject to the law — just try to find an Assyrian or a Babylonian to ask about it. but the Israelites endure; despite the heat and sands and wandering and batterings of time, Israel as a people defy the law of entropy. We do not fade.

After the centuries of discrimination and anguish faced by the Jewish people, the law of entropy should be accelerated — time was abetted by the cruelty of so many over the ages. Yet the Jewish people endure to lift our collective voices against hate of all kinds across the globe.

The theme of miraculous endurance is a keystone of Jewish tradition. The prophet Isaiah writes, “They will soar on wings of eagles, they will run and not grow weary, walk and not grow faint (Is. 40:31).” For thousands of years, we have managed to ensure that our hearts do not grow tired, our voices unsteady — that “our clothes do not wear out.” We continue our walk through the wilderness, unflagging and unafraid.