If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the Lord 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. You shall gather in your new grain and wine and oil – I will also provide grass in the fields for your cattle – and thus you shall eat your fill. Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and bow to them. For the Lord’s anger will flare up against you, and God will shut up the skies so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce; and you will soon perish from the good land that the Lord is assigning to you. Therefore impress these My words upon your very heart, bind them as a sign on your hand, and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead, and teach them to your children – reciting them when you stay home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up; and inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates – to the end that you and your children may endure, in the land that the Lord swore to your ancestors to assign to them, as long as there is a heaven over the earth. (Deuteronomy 11: 13-21)According to Deuteronomy, loyalty to God’s covenant, in addition to being rewarded with new grain, wine, and oil, fertile flocks and herds, health and well being for people and animals alike, will bring military victories and secure borders. Failure to keep God’s covenant will result in unmitigated disaster. Is this how the world works?
According to Deuteronomy, God holds all the cards, and we have but two choices: obey or rebel. The processes of nature take their cue – day by day – from God, who considers our lives and decides if we deserve blessing or curse. Leaving aside the obvious clash with science, is this the God you worship?
On the one hand, Torah in general, and Deuteronomy in particular, sees God as all-powerful, coercive, and punishing. On the other hand, it is equally true that Torah asserts that God loves Israel passionately, is eternally loyal to the Covenant with our ancestors and us, and seeks continuous relationship with us. Are they two separate views, or two sides of a single coin?
Put another way: Is a God who rewards and punishes in a way that brings on waves of human suffering a God I want to worship? Or are the ideas encapsulated in Deuteronomy human expression, the words of people who understood the world – and God – in a particular way that perhaps differs from my way? If the answers to these questions are yes and no (respectively) all is well and I have no trouble praying this paragraph. If, however, the answers to these questions are no and yes (respectively), how do I incorporate the second paragraph of Shema into my prayers in more than a perfunctory way? How do I interpret them extract religious meaning from them?
For me, the answers are no and yes, so I will attempt to construct a rationale for praying the second paragraph of Shema.
First, a frame for my response: Moses reminds the Israelites that God subjected them to privation in the wilderness, and then nourished them with manna to teach them ki lo al ha-lekhem l’vado yi-kheyeh ha-adam, ki al kol motza fi-Adonai yi-kheyeh ha-adam “that man does not live on bread alone, but that man may live on anything that the Lord decrees” (Deuteronomy 8:3). It is not necessary to see God as a coercive, bullying Being to find meaning in these words: the world is a dangerous place and life is filled with hardships. To cross the Wilderness – a place of challenge and ultimate freedom (i.e. the ability to make moral choices) – mere bread (i.e. satisfying physical needs) is not sufficient. We need both more and less. There are times when we can get along without even bread; we can experience privation and survive with out bodies, minds, and integrity intact. And even when we have sufficient bread (i.e. our physical needs are met) that alone is not sufficient. We have spiritual needs, satisfied by God however we conceive God, that are integral to our survival and wellbeing. What we need is no simple matter, and the Israelites learned that their desires and actions impacted one another at every turn.
With this truth in mind, the second paragraph of Shema (quoted above) comes to remind us that all our choices have consequences that affect not only us, but others, as well. It’s easy to lose sight of this in the day-to-day tussle of life. It’s easy to slip into seeing everything as an isolated event and evaluating things according to the “what’s in it for me?” or “how will it affect me?” criteria alone. This paragraph reminds us that our lives are intertwined with those of others and our decisions have an impact beyond our range of vision. That message alone is worthwhile and can help us retool our thinking and behaving in as diverse arenas as our utilization of energy and natural resources, our proclivity to engage in lashon hara (gossip), and our involvement in issues of social justice. No wonder our tradition delivers a daily dose of it.
I don’t subscribe to the theology of Deuteronomy, but I benefit from the daily reminder that my life is interwoven with the lives of others and the life of the universe. It’s both a head and humbling thought, isn’t it?
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman