Sunday, August 21, 2016

Eikev: Is God Waiting for Us to Fail?


By Rabbi David Hartley Mark

If you will surely listen to [and obey] the mitzvote-commandments which I give you this day, to love the LORD your God and to serve Him with all your heart and soul, then I will give the dew of your land in its time, [as well as] both the early and latter rains; you will harvest your plenitude of grain, wine, and oil. I will make fresh grass sprout freely in your fields for your cattle, and you shall eat and be satisfied.

Guard yourselves strictly, that your hearts not be turned to rebel [against Me] by worshiping other gods…. For [if you do], the LORD’s wrath will burn hotly against you, and He will close off the heavens, and there will be no rain; the earth will not give forth its crops. You will indeed die off quickly from the good land which the LORD gives to you.

--Deut. 11:13-17, “Second Paragraph of Sh’ma Prayer,” Rabbi Jules Harlow, Ed. Siddur Sim Shalom for Shabbat & Festivals. NYC, NY: The Rabbinical Assembly, 1998 (Translation Mine).

            How shall we Modern Jews understand this paragraph? Many scholars and laypeople choose to interpret it in the light of Environmentalism, which is certainly a popular topic, in these days of Global Warming. Simply put, if we destroy the earth by fracking it to cause earthquakes, strip-fishing the oceans to remove millions of tons of fish and plants, and pumping poison into the air, then God, or Nature, will be unable to make it yield its bounty. This certainly applies to South Florida, where I live, with our local practice of air-conditioning every enclosed space available, so that one goes from the air-conditioned house to the air-conditioned store, public place, or office, via an air-conditioned car.

            That was not, however, the original meaning of this prayer. It asks us to struggle with the question of theodicy—namely, why do bad things happen to good people? Will God send us blessings or brickbats, depending solely on whether we perform commandments or not?

            Of course, our moral education begins in childhood—“Children will listen,” as Stephen Sondheim tells us, and they do—but how should their parents teach them how to face life’s challenges and struggles? It is elementary that we give our children food, clothing, shelter, and an education, but encouragement is crucial, as well. Pat them on the back; say, “You can do it, Kid!” Hug them when they present you with a hand-painted Father’s Day mug or a slightly-tilted clay dish for your spare change, with the words “I heart you” spelled out a bit crooked—because you know that they did it with love.

That is one way to raise a child or grandchild. That is a good way.

            There are other ways to do it, as well. When the child messes up, you can yell at them. When the child becomes a teenager and perhaps loses a job or has some other minor setback, you can tell them to laugh it off, or you can say something totally wrongheaded but well-meaning, such as, “Well, what did you expect? They were laying for you. The world’s a crummy place, didn’t you know that? Now, you’ll know better.”
That way, you are laying a series of emotional landmines in the child’s fragile eggshell mind, so that they will learn not to fully trust anyone anymore; they will become older and wiser, very fast, and suspicious, even faster. You will have ensured that it will take them years of study and discussion of both theology and psychology to undo your well-meant advice.

            Or, perhaps, they will disregard your advice—the second kind, that is. They may persist, and persevere, and go on to achieve great things, things requiring strong efforts on their part, but also a modicum of trust in their colleagues and the profession they finally embrace. They will first have to unlearn your theory of paranoia, and then, they may construct a foundation of cautious trust in their fellow human beings, and, in God. But it will take time.

            That is the spirit in which we can approach this parsha, this Torah reading called Eikev. I am no apologist; I am a scholar of Torah. In particular, I approach the above paragraph which anonymous editors appended to our prayerbook, centuries ago, and which later editors of other Jewish prayerbooks (Reform, Reconstructionist, Jewish Renewal) have quietly removed.

However, we are a Conservative temple, and our prayerbook retains it. What are we to do about it?

            Let us accept as a given that prayer comes in three categories: 1. Request 2. Thanksgiving 3. Praise of God. This particular prayer—quotation, really—cannot fall under any of these categories. We must consider it a challenge—a challenge to our most common sensibilities, as we sit in temple on a given Shabbat, full of our worries, joys, and various problems, ah groiseh peckeleh (full sack) of issues to dump on the Almighty—it’s all right; He has broad metaphorical shoulders, and can well handle it.

The question stands: does God reward us when we are good, and punish us when we are bad?

            I say, “No.” I say, “My God is forgiving, longsuffering, compassionate, and just, as well. But my God will always give me another chance—because my God is not finished with me, just yet.”

            This, in spite of the world’s evils.
            This, in spite of our lives’ setbacks and disappointments—as well as our times of triumph and happiness.
            This, because we have rejoiced in the past, and look forward to equally joyful times in the future.