Ekev 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ekev

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.

Ekev (Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25)

OVERVIEW

Moshe continues to exhort the people not to forget God’s wonders and God’s Torah when they enter the land. Moshe’s theology is straightforward, though not unproblematic: if you follow the Torah, God will reward you with blessings in the land, and drive out your enemies. Moshe also reviews some of the earlier incidents when Israel was rebellious, including the Golden Calf and the making of second tablets. The parasha concludes with a passage which constitutes the second paragraph of the traditional Shema recitation; this paragraph reiterates the connection between piety and receiving God’s blessing.

IN FOCUS

“If you faithfully obey the commands I am giving you today- to love the LORD your God and to serve God with all your heart and with all your soul then I will send rain on your land in its season, both autumn and spring rains, so that you may gather in your grain, new wine and oil. I will provide grass in the fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be satisfied. Be careful, or you will be enticed to turn away and worship other gods and bow down to them. Then the LORD’s anger will burn against you, and God will shut the heavens so that it will not rain and the ground will yield no produce, and you will soon perish from the good land the LORD is giving you.” (Deuteronomy 11:10-17)

PSHAT

As mentioned above, the theology of the book of D’varim [Deuteronomy] seems to be rather straightforward: if Israel obeys God’s commands, and worships only God, then God will send blessings in the form of rain and agricultural abundance. The general idea of reward for good behavior and punishment for disobedience is a recurrent theme in the book of D’varim; here it is explicitly connected with the land producing abundantly for the people.

DRASH

One can hardly compare the world we live in to the perfectly just world that the book of D’varim imagines. In our world, evil and greedy people abuse others and become rich and famous, living long and healthy lives; in the world of D’varim, the evil are punished by an active God who brings misfortune and disaster upon those who disobey the revealed moral law. There have been many attempts to struggle with this dilemma, all of which attempt to reconcile the belief in God’s justice with the reality of our often unjust world. (Some Jewish responses to this problem are discussed in our Reb on the Web archives).

This week’s Torah portion brings this ancient theological paradox to the fore because of the prominence of this passage from D’varim in the traditional Jewish liturgy- many observant Jews recite this passage twice a day in the traditional Shma, morning and evening. Many Jews affirm that God is indeed just, and that this passage, and others like it, must be understood as referring to collective, national reward and punishment. In other words, when the nation as a whole follows a moral path, then Israel as a people experiences blessing and security; it simply doesn’t apply on the individual level.

While this addresses part of our paradox, it leaves open the question of why Jews have indeed suffered as a nation, even if we apparently didn’t “deserve” it. The Shoah is the most obvious example; if one takes the theology of D’varim literally, one is forced to say that the victims of the Shoah were sinners who deserved their punishment, or one is forced to say that even the more collective application of reward and punishment is no longer a viable or believable theology.

Not only that, but many people in the modern world have difficulty believing that our deeds, whether good or bad, affect the natural world in such a direct way- is the rain really due to our sins or lack thereof? Is the weather controlled by God in response to our morality, or is it a natural process that operates according to discernable patterns and laws?

Thus our passage this week has two major problems, according to many modern thinkers: we don’t want to say that those who suffer are necessarily sinners, and and we don’t want to affirm the pre-modern theological conception of God turning the rains on and off in response to our behavior. Faced with these problems, many Reform prayerbooks simply omit this passage, and as early as 1945, the Reconstructionist prayerbook substituted another passage from D’varim 28, one that speaks more generally of the positive benefits of a religiously committed life.

Yet there have also been attempts to reread our passage in more open and metaphorical ways. An excellent collection of commentaries on this passage and others is found in My People’s Prayer Book, a set of commentaries from a variety of perspectives on many sections of the traditonal liturgy. The Conservative scholar Elliott Dorff affirms a belief in God’s justice, despite the fact that we live in an often unjust world, because:

. . justice must be a critical element in the God I affirm. The calculus of reward and punishment articulated in this paragraphy may be too simple and ultimately inaccurate, and for that matter, it may be immoral in the first place to do the right thing and avoid the wrong out of concern for consequences. Nevertheless, I find this paragraph, with all its problems, central to my beliefs, for it insists starkly (even if too starkly), that God is ultimately just.

Somehow, justice is an inherent part of the world and of God; and since God is the model for human beings, the possibility of justice must be inherent in us as well.

Another contemporary thinker, feminist theologian Judith Plaskow, sees in the second paragraph of the Shma a reminder that all life is interconnected:

. . . it is not necessary to read this paragraph of the Sh’ma as a literal statement about divine reward and punishment. In a world whose survival depends partly on the human capacity to value creation and care for it wisely, it is possible to interpret the passage more naturalistically. If we are able to develop an ecological consciousness, if we treat the earth with respect, if we are aware that we are embedded in a great web of life of which God is the ultimate source and sustainer, then the earth will bear fruit for us and the rain will come in its season. But if we believe that we can trample on or transcend the constraints of nature, if we forget the sacredness of all things and make idols of our own wealth and power, then “the earth will not grant its produce,” and both we and our world may perish.

What both these approaches have in common is a willingness to see beyond the literal and perhaps unacceptable meaning of the text to a spiritual challenge behind it. Can we affirm a God who is just, despite the morning headlines? (I think R. Dorff might even ask us if we can risk not affirming God’s justice.) Can we also see ourselves as intricately interconnected with the natural cycles of the world, affecting them in complex ways and certainly being affected by them?

Perhaps at the most basic level our passage challenges us to admit that we don’t control the world- we may affect it, but we don’t control it. That in itself is something important to affirm at least twice a day. On a purely intellectual level, D’varim presents difficult problems, yet the spiritual message is one of humility, of seeing ourselves as part of a greater whole, of perceiving the possibility of justice in a world that often desparately needs it.

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