Ah! Living the good life! The words conjure up villas on the Mediterranean, fancy cars, gourmet meals, fashionable clothes, consorting with the well-to-do.
On the other hand, living the good life is the fundamental question that religions try to answer. There are myriad answers, and over the millennia Judaism has managed to give many of them.
Some religions say that having material possessions and good fortune are a mark that one is blessed or among the elect or has grace, while poverty and bad fortune are a mark of those who are not blessed. Some religions would take the opposite view and see those who are the most blessed and holy as those who eschew material possessions and who do good works among the poor and outcast.
Some religions tie the good things of life to actions we take, while others say that good deeds are their own reward and that we should be thankful for the good things we receive and enjoy them while not assuming we are given them based on our own merit.
Some say that desire is the source of suffering. Thus, living a good life means freeing ourselves of desire. For some, the answer is that doing the right thing as its only reward lets us lead a good life by giving us a satisfied mind.
Parshat Ekev’s answer to what it means to live the good life is: many of the above. Here are some of the answers Ekev gives us in the order presented.
Ekev begins by saying that if we keep God’s laws, we will be loved and not only be blessed with happiness and material possessions but watch the destruction of our enemies and feel no pity for they deserve what they get.
Ekev says that if we enjoy all the good things we are given but fail to keep the commandments and to show gratitude – and if we forget who brought us into the land or even think we got there on our own, then we will lose all that we have been given. In fact, it says, we were not being given the land based on our own merit; rather, we are a punishment for the wickedness of the people who are losing the land. Knowing that our good fortune comes at a heavy price paid by someone else certainly has to take away some of the pleasure of living in the land of milk and honey.
If that weren’t bad enough, Moses then points out all the bad things the Children of Israel have done that deserve punishment and not reward. He makes it clear that had it not been for Moses’ pleading on our behalf and for the merit of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, we would have been destroyed in the wilderness.
Ekev tells us that the good life is one based on good actions – walking in God’s ways and keeping the commandments. We must do these things without expecting any reward: God does justice for the orphan, widow, and stranger, so we must do the same.
But if that isn’t enough, these actions must be taken with the knowledge that God can destroy – and has destroyed – those who fail to do them. Not only must we do these things, we must do them with all our being and we must teach them to the next generation. It’s bad enough to be saddled with these complex responsibilities and explanations, but we have to pass them on to our kids.
Suffering, failure, pain, reward, and joy are all parts of human existence, and religion can provide us with ways to deal with them. But what are we to do with the exhausting inconsistencies and complexities of Ekev that seem to provide no clear answer to what it means to live a good life?
Here is the best I can do. Ekev seems to say that material possessions may or may not be a reward for our merit; rather, they may be given to us for reasons that would make us squirm. They may be more someone else’s loss and punishment than our reward. What we ought to be concerned with is not material possessions – though we should be grateful for them. Rather, our real focus ought to be relieving suffering, being diligent about the obligation to live in a Godly way, being grateful for the good things that come our way while not assuming we deserve them, and instilling these understandings in the next generation.
Living life mindful of these complexities may be the best way we all can achieve the good life.