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Recovering Ancient Scripture To Face Modern Challenges

For the modern reader, Deuteronomy's strict doctrine of reward and punishment can be troubling: Obey God and prosper; disobey God and suffer. But is that the way the world works?
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Having recently moved from Cleveland, Ohio, to South Florida, I am adjusting to a very different climate. The timing of my move was such that I missed experiencing the infamous "Heat Dome" that plagued a large swath of the country this summer. Ironically, while temperatures in Florida were seasonably muggy and hot -- in the 90s -- temperatures in the Upper Midwest and Northeast soured over 100 for days.

For years, we have heard about climate change occurring as a result of human-produced pollution. Many scientists and commentators have moved away from the term "global warming," in favor of "climate change," to account for all kinds of increasingly odd weather patterns throughout the year, such as flooding, tornadoes, blizzards. I happen to like Thomas L. Friedman's term "Global Weirding."

Nevertheless, the intense heat of this summer raised concern. Even in Florida, which has been spared (as of this writing) the extreme conditions from up north, things seem different. Long-time Florida residents tell me that it used to rain every afternoon at a predictable time. This summer, rain has not been as predictable. Rain can come at any time or not at all on a given day. Again, it's weird.

The Torah paints a picture of a world with more predictability. As synagogues around the world recently started reading Deuteronomy as part of the annual liturgical cycle of scriptural reading, we can't avoid Deuteronomy 11:13-21 (the end of Parashat Ekev)n This passage is well known. Jews who pray regularly recognize it as the second paragraph of the Sh'ma, the centerpiece of the daily morning and evening liturgy. This passage bears strong parallels to the first paragraph with its commands to bind these words as a sign on our hands and as frontlets on our foreheads and to inscribe them on the doorposts of our houses and gates. But the passage is also known for its vintage-Deuteronomy reward-and-punishment theology. For the ancient Israelites and their agrarian economy, reward and punishment was best expressed in terms of weather: Follow God's ways and receive abundant rain in its season to yield plentiful harvests; stray from God's ways and risk drought and starvation.

According to this passage, abundant rain is clearly a blessing. In Israel, where the rainy season is of limited duration, the need for adequate rain in its season is rather acute. The ancients understood this as well as anyone. Residents of and travelers to Israel and the Middle East know how crucial rain is for the region, particularly in the winter.

What is difficult for many of us to grasp is the theology behind the second paragraph of the Sh'ma. It is prominent in the daily liturgy and is found in the mezuzah on the doorpost of every Jewish home. For the modern reader, though, Deuteronomy's strict doctrine of reward and punishment can be troubling: Obey God and prosper; disobey God and suffer.

Is that the way the world works? Time and again we witness the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper. How can the prominence of the second paragraph of the Sh'ma in Jewish liturgy be reconciled with human experience? I am sure we all can think of examples when we have asked this question whether it be sparked by the serious illness of a loved one or any number of atrocities done by one group of people toward another. So, given the world we live in, why is Deuteronomy 11:13-21 so central to Jewish liturgy?

I might mention that the early American Reform Movement did omit that passage entirely from their prayer books. Decades later, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, founder of Jewish Reconstructionism, dropped the paragraph from his prayer book published in 1945. He said that he cannot believe that "the process of meteorology is dependent on man's moral behavior." All along, Orthodoxy and the Conservative Movement, which Kaplan served for most of his career, has kept this paragraph in the liturgy, though it is often read silently while the first and third paragraphs are often sung aloud in a congregation.

Despite the efforts of reformers to omit the Deuteronomy 11 passage from the liturgy, a funny thing has happened in recent years. The second paragraph of the Sh'ma has made a comeback of sorts, as members of all of the religious movements have attempted to appropriate new meaning to the passage. It even was included in the 1989 edition of the new Reconstructionist prayer book. One explanation is evoked by modern ecological consciousness. It is no longer primitive to believe that human behavior affects the natural order. On the contrary, we are now aware that we have the power to destroy or to preserve our environment. We know that our behavior as a human race correlates with rainfall, whether it is severe flooding, severe draught or acid rain that destroys ecological systems that it's intended to nourish. As noted by Rabbi Arthur Waskow, the passage in Sh'ma has acquired a new relevance for evoking ecological consciousness.

As someone who says this paragraph every day yet struggles with it nonetheless, I derive great comfort from Rabbi Waskow's ecological interpretation. Rabbi Elliot Dorff, a leading philosopher in the Conservative Movement also provides a compelling explanation on this passage's lessons to us on justice in general. He writes:

"I recite the Shema each day because it proclaims God's justice, and justice must be a critical element in the God I affirm. The calculus of reward and punishment articulated in [Deut. 11:13-21] may be too simple and ultimately inaccurate. ... 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."

He further writes: "The Rabbis too had problems with the doctrine of justice announced in this paragraph, but they included it anyway, because they too had a deep faith in the ultimate justice of God as the metaphysical backdrop and support for human acts of justice."

I believe that the paragraph still rings true, even if not literally. When a whole society does the right thing, behaves in the right way, learns to love God and love their neighbors, the overall quality of life for everybody gets better. If everybody lived such a life, we would all feel the reward. In our day, environmental stewardship and society's virtuous behavior are intertwined with each other. My hope is that humanity will heed the call of this ancient Scripture to clean up our planet and restore justice to the world.