Sermon for Parashat Eikev – Joe Cohen

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 10 August 2020

This week’s parasha is Eikev, in the Book of Deuteronomy. We are approaching the end of the Torah, with only eight more parashot to go. The Children of Israel are standing on the plains of Moab, to the east of the Jordan River.  Moses is priming them before their entry into the land flowing with milk and honey[1].

In the section of Eikev I will read today, Moses reminds the people of what God has done for them – how God took them out of Egypt, how God ensured their survival in the wilderness and that there were consequences for those who did not follow God’s word. For example, Dathan and Abiram, were swallowed by the earth for their part in the revolt led by Korach[2] against Moses and Aaron.

Moses rises to the heights of oratory[3] as he again exhorts the Children of Israel to revere the one God, to emulate His ways and to keep his commandments and laws – all for their own benefit. Moses indicates that this is not difficult or extraordinary.  He advises the people how to create a good society after they enter the Promised Land.

Moses’ oration is a unique guide to moral and ethical behaviour. He tells them:

  • to hold themselves to higher standards of behaviour;
  • to open their hearts to God and stop being stiff-necked and haughty people;
  • to pursue justice in God’s way, ie, their appointed judges should show no favour and take no bribes;
  • to care for widows and orphans; and,
  • to befriend strangers[4].

Moses says they will reap the benefits for faithful observance of God’s commandments and face the consequences of not doing so.

As a retired solicitor, I will talk about two related themes in this parasha, which are close to my heart.  The first is the necessity for an independent judiciary, which I take from the words:

“… asher lo yisah fanim, v’lo yikach shochad.” –  “…He shows no favour and takes no bribes.

The second is the imperative to listen, which I take from the echoes of some of the words in the paragraphs of the Sh’mah you will hear in this morning’s section of Eikev – the words:

bechol le’vavacha uvechol nafshecha” and “ve’ahavta et Adonai Elohecha[5].

It is not surprising that the concept of an independent judiciary is first mentioned in our Torah. It is one of the fundamental precepts of a good society.  Judges should not be subjected to improper influence from the other branches of government or from private or partisan interests[6].  Justice and human rights cannot be guaranteed without a free and independent judiciary.  This is crucial in our present time, in view of indications of proposed interference with the judiciary in Israel and even in our own country.

It is also not surprising that so many judges and lawyers throughout history were and are Jewish.  In his book, entitled “Abraham, the World’s First (but certainly not Last) Jewish Lawyer”[7], Alan Dershowitz, salutes Abraham’s legal skills.  Among other ‘cases’ he dealt with, Abraham represented the people of Sodom[8] when God said He was going to destroy the city.   Then, there was  Moses, the Law-giver, who was also an advocate on behalf of the recalcitrant Israelites in the Wilderness.   Daniel (he of the Lion’s Den) devised the rule relating to the separation of witnesses[9].  Devorah[10], the only female judge mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, dispensed even-handed justice under a palm tree.

We then have those whom I call the Rabbinical lawyers who redacted the Mishna, the Oral Law and who argued, long and intensely – in the Gemara – about the interpretation of the Oral Law.

Throughout the centuries since then, Jews have been fascinated, if not obsessed with law and justice.  Dershowitz points out that, “… the Jewish people have produced an extraordinary array of Jewish lawyers, who have … played major roles in the legal systems of their adopted countries and the world.”   One example he gives is: René Cassin, a French Jew, who, in 1968, won the Nobel Peace Prize as the primary drafter of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  There are, of course, many other examples.

In our current times, we have had and still have many Jewish judges at all levels of our English court system – up to our Supreme Court who have been fiercely independent.  Two examples are: Lord (Harry) Woolf (who was Lord Chief Justice) and Lord (David) Neuberger (who was President of the UK Supreme Court).  I must also mention the ferociously independent Jewish American Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who was a pioneer of women’s rights in that country.

I am aware that, in our own Alyth community, we have numerous lawyers, including many  judges.

I believe that Jews have been drawn to the legal profession because of their innate sense, perhaps influenced by today’s parasha, of wanting impartial and fearless justice to be seen to be done; and because of the Torah command:  “Justice, justice shall you pursue”[11].

A key factor in administering justice is the imperative to listen.

The written word “Sh’mah” first featured in last week’s parasha.  It is usually translated as “hear”; but, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says, in his book, “Deuteronomy: Renewal of the Sinai Covenant”,  “the word is untranslatable. It means many things:

to hear, to listen, to pay attention, to understand, to internalise and to respond”.[12]

Sh’mah is an important word.  It appears no less than 92 times in the Book of Deuteronomy. (I did not count them. Rabbi Sacks did that for me![13]Sh’mahlistening – requires more than merely hearing. It requires effort to take on board what is being said – it means to engage.

This does not always happen.  I recently attended a conference by Zoom.  In one of the sessions, the two speakers spoke brilliantly; but, for much of the discussion, they did not connect. They appeared to be more intent on saying what they wanted to say, rather than responding appropriately to what the other was saying.

King Solomon, who was famously also a judge, asked God to give him a “lev shome’a”, literally “a listening heart” to judge the people[14]. Solomon’s wisdom lay, in part, in his ability to listen, to hear the emotion behind the words, to sense what was being left unsaid as well as what was said. Listening is the most effective form of judging and of conflict resolution.

Listening also entails not interrupting when someone is speaking. My favourite line in a verse in the Pirkei Avot is: “The wise person does not interrupt when another is speaking.”[15]   Another important line tells us that one of the ways to refine oneself and to acquire deep wisdom is through attentive listening and adding to what is said[16].

So, taking from two of the features of today’s parasha –  impartial justice and listening, really listening – we are encouraged to see that it is our responsibility to fight for an independent judiciary and to reflect on our ability to listen.  +The responsibility for a good society lies with us.


[1] Actually, goats’ milk and date honey.

[2] Interestingly, in today’s portion, Moses does not mention Korach. That is, because Korach’s two sons were still alive (Numbers 26:11) and Moses did not wish to offend them by mentioning their father’s sin. That is the measure of the man, Moses!

[3] Moses’ speech shines, as well as his face.  See Hertz Pentateuch, 2nd edition, 1973, p 735.

[4] This demand to love the foreigner is without parallel in the legislation of any ancient people. Ibid, p 790.

[5] These are resonances from the first paragraph  of the Sh’mah, from last week’s parasha (Deut. 6:4-9) and the second paragraph of the Sh’mah , which appear in later verses in this week’s parasha (Deut, 11:13-21).


[7]  Published by Schocken Books, 2015.

[8]  Genesis 18:23-32

[9]  See the story, in the Apocrypha, of Suzanna and the elders, in which Daniel saved the life of the falsely accused Suzanna, by insisting that her two accusers be separated during their cross-examination.

[10]  Judges 4:5

[11]  Deuteronomy 16:20

[12]  One of his “Covenant & Conversation” series of books.

[13]  Essay by Rabbi Sacks – Eikev (5774) – “To Lead is to Listen”, 12 August 2014.

[14] 1 Kings 3: 9

[15] Pirkei Avot, 5:7 or 5:9, depending on the source book.   5:7 in Sefaria.

[16] Ibid. 6:6