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Interreligious harmony

Abundance and retribution: parashat Ekev

This week's Torah portion (Parashat Ekev) has great stuff in it -- including what most Jews know as the second paragraph of the Shema, which begins:

If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving Adonai your God and serving God with all your heart and soul, I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late...

(That's the first verse, Deuteronomy 11:13; the passage runs through 11:21. You can find it in Hebrew alongside slightly antiquated English by scrolling slightly on this page.) If you grew up Reform, you may not recognize Deut. 11:13-22 as part of the Shema -- indeed, you may not realize the Shema extends past the first paragraph. The original Reform liturgy excised the latter two paragraphs; my 1960 edition of the Union Prayer Book skips them altogether, and they weren't in Gates of Prayer when I was in high school, either.

I suspect the early Reform liturgists were troubled by the direct causality of the traditional prayer's second paragraph. Drought and famine are equal-opportunity tragedies, and who could countenance an understanding of God which holds that lack of rain is God's punishment for idolatry?

It's not only the Reformim who wrestle with this one; the Reconstructionist siddur Kol Haneshamah offers several options for the second paragraph of the shema, among them Deut. 28:1-6 and 30:15-19 -- though it also offers the traditional passage, noting that though the traditional text offers a "supernatural theology that many contemporary Jews find difficult," our awareness of how we ourselves can use and abuse the environment allows us to recognize that this reward and punishment may rest in our own hands.

The liturgical pendulum continues to swing: the passage will be restored to the new Reform siddur, due later this year, and it's long been a part of the homegrown prayerbook that my congregation uses. In ours the Hebrew is paired with two different English-language variants. We use the literal translation at morning services, and at evening services an interpretive translation which begins,

If you will listen to Me and know the way to treat each other lovingly that I give you this day, you will be rewarded with fulfillment and always know who you are. You will gather blessings in your life. There will be sustenance for your spirit...

We're not alone in translating the passage in a range of ways. Rabbi Arthur Waskow argues passionately for its multiplicity of meanings. He observes that in this part of the shema, the Hebrew speaks to a plural audience (unlike in the earlier part of the prayer, which is singular), and that it resonates on a social or communal level in ways it might not resonate for individuals. His translation begins,

If you listen, REALLY listen to the teachings of YHWH, the Breath of Life, especially the teaching that there is Unity in the world and inter-connection among all its parts, then the rains will fall as they should, the rivers will run, the heavens will smile, and the good earth will feed you...

Regardless of how the passage is translated or interpreted, there always comes the pivotal "but." If we fail to follow the mitzvot -- if we are disobedient and idolatrous -- if we (in Reb Waskow's terms) "shatter the harmony of life" -- then bad things will happen. And that's the part of the passage that seems to be a sticking-point for many contemporary liberal Jews. We don't want to reduce the Infinite to a disciplinarian, and we don't like the theodicy encoded in the apparent arrow of causality between disobedience and famine.

That's why I think we need to read this passage metaphorically, and to invert the causality we're accustomed to seeing in it. Forget the simplistic understanding which suggests that God is waiting, drought in hand, to smack down unbelievers. This text points to the truth that when we elevate pride or property over God we cut sustenance out of our own lives. In succumbing to the lure of idolatry, we turn away from the source of sustenance which would otherwise be present in our lives; we make the scarcity manifest for ourselves. 

For me the reward, and the punishment, are both metaphorical. Torah isn't talking about literal grain in literal fields. Try reading it, instead, as speaking of the wildflower meadows and abundant cornucopias of the human heart. Then the beginning of the Shema becomes an exhortation to be mindful of the Unity underlying creation -- and the second paragraph reminds us how fragile and precious our sense of sustenance is, and how much it depends on our willingness to (as it is written) revere the Infinite, walk in paths of holiness, and commit our hearts and souls to loving and serving the Source from Which we come.


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