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Rain as Reward? Reward and Punishment in the Torah

How do we modern Jews understand reward and punishment? My colleague and friend Rabbi Jocee Hudson, Director of Education at Temple Beth Sholom of Santa Ana, CA, reflects upon this question, which arises in the Torah portion Ekev (Deuteronomy 11:13-21):
This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Eikev, includes the theologically troubling second paragraph of one of our central Jewish prayers, the Sh’ma. In fact, these words are so challenging, the Reform movement long ago removed them from our liturgy. And, while the words are preserved in our TBS siddur (Or Ami keeps only , we don’t often recite them. What are these words that cause us so much worry? Deuteronomy 11:13-21 reads: If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving Adonai your God and serving Him 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 Adonai’s anger will flare up against you, and He 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 Adonai 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 at 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 Adonai swore to your fathers to assign to them, as long as there is a heaven over the earth. What can we, as Reform Jews, do with such a firm theological statement of reward and punishment (a theology that our movement long ago rejected)? This way of looking at the world (i.e. good behavior = rain) clearly no longer fits with our ethics and morals. I believe we must look past the simple (p’shat) meaning of these words and explore their relevance in our world today (d’rash). I believe that God, through the words of Torah, is speaking to us today. God is saying to us: If you continue to burn fossil fuels for your benefit today, without exploring alternative technology, you will feel the ramifications of your actions, as your weather patterns will change (droughts, hurricanes, floods, and mudslides). And, you will feel the consequences of worshipping the gods of “convenience” and “progress.” God is saying to us: If you continue to produce “new seeds” and use dangerous, poisonous chemicals and fertilizers, planting without concern for native environments or the needs of local populations, you will experience hunger and create inarable land. And, you will feel the consequences of not researching the possibilities of locally grown produce, organic growing, subsistent farming, or alternative theories of agriculture. God is saying to us: If you continue to strip the land bare of old growth trees and pay no heed to your efforts at deforestation, you will experience mudslides and climate change. And, you will feel the consequences of not treating the land with respect. I fear that we, as a world collective, have begun to believe that we are no longer subject to the Divine laws of the elements. We have begun to imagine that we are no longer intimately connected to the land and her rhythms. We have begun to believe that the intricate, Divinely controlled relationship between human actions and needed rainfall no longer apply to us. We have begun to believe that we no longer need God’s commandments. This year, as we read these timeless words of Deuteronomy, let us return to our God — to the cautions we were long ago commanded to impress upon our hearts. We learn in this week’s parashah that we cannot compartmentalize our actions. The way we treat our planet is the way we treat our God is the way we treat ourselves. On this Shabbat, let us hear Torah anew. On this Shabbat, let us recommit ourselves to enduring — and even thriving — in our land.

One comment

  1. Thank God someone else thinks like this! Why, oh why, did Elyse D. Frishman see fit to include the final paragraph of the V’ahavta and not this supremely relevant treatise on cause and effect and the environment?

    But I am a mere 19-year-old wannabe liturgist. Visit me at The Reform Shuckle at davidsaysthings.wordpress.com

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