The oldest section of Jewish prayer services is the Shema and the three excerpts from the Torah that follow it. These became a regular part of morning and evening services about 2,000 years ago. The Shema itself is a single sentence: Listen, Israel: God is our god, God is one. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 6:4)
The prayer service continues with Deuteronomy 6:5-9, in a paragraph sometimes called “the ve-ahavta” because it begins with the word ve-ahavta (וְאָהַבְתָּ) = And you shall love. (See my post: Va-etchannan: Extreme Love.) This first paragraph after the Shema urges individuals to remember to love God at all times.
The second paragraph, Deuteronomy 11:13-21, which comes from this week’s Torah portion, Eikev (“On the heels of”), offers reasons why the whole community must follow God’s rules. The third paragraph, Numbers/Bemidbar 14:37-41, calls for tassels (tzitzit) as a reminder to keep our attention on God. (See my post Shelach-Lekha: Glimpses of Blue.)
The second paragraph after the Shema is the most problematic of the three, because its reasons for obeying God’s rules consist of two if-then statements that are obviously untrue. It begins:
And it will be, if you [plural] truly heed My commandments that I am commanding to you today, to love God, your god, and to serve [God] with your whole levav and your whole being— (Deuteronomy/Devarim 11:13)
levav (לֵבָב) = mind, (literally “heart”), the seat of conscious thoughts and feelings.
Are the commandments in the “if” clause the whole body of law in the Torah, or just to love God and serve God with your whole mind and body? For classic commentators, it does not matter, because the way to love and serve God is to follow all of God’s commandments in the Torah.
The next two verses promise a reward:
—then I will give rain to your land at the right time, autumn-rain and spring-rain, and you will gather your grain and your wine and your olive oil. And I will put grasses in your field for your livestock, and you will eat and you will be sated. (Deuteronomy 11:14-15)
It is a nice promise, but we all know that obeying God’s commandments does not, in actual practice, result in beneficial weather–even in Israel. For Jews outside Israel, obeying God’s commandments does not guarantee the results of beneficial weather: a full stomach and being able to live where you are.
One explanation is that we humans are so fallible, we never manage to obey all of the pertinent commandments properly; and God will not reward us if we miss the mark on even one of them. But even the God-character in the Torah, who wipes out the innocent with the guilty, is not that unreasonable.
The if-then promise is followed by an if-then threat:
Be on guard against yourselves, because if your mind yifteh, and you turn away and serve other gods and bow down to them—then the heat of God’s anger will be against you, and it will shut up the heavens, and rain will not happen, and the land will not give its produce, and you will quickly perish from the good land that God is giving to you. (Deuteronomy 11:16-11:17)
yifteh (יִפְתֶּה) = will fool itself, will be tempted, will be naïve.
However, we know that when someone succumbs to the temptation to serve other gods—either literal or figurative—drought, death, or exile do not necessarily follow.
Some commentary points out that although the ve-ahavta paragraph of the Shema addresses “you” in the singular, this second paragraph uses “you” in the plural. God’s covenant is with all the Israelites, collectively. The more conscientious members of the community are charged elsewhere in in the Torah with preventing idolatry and improving the behavior of the slackers.
Yet bad things still happen to whole groups of good people.
And whole groups of people who fool themselves into idolatry (such as the belief that getting rich is more important than loving your fellow as yourself) still have plenty to eat.
Jews who want to believe the promise and threat in the passage from this week’s Torah portion continue to find rationalizations. Sixty years ago some religious Jews blamed their own people’s lack of perfection for the Holocaust.
Environmentalists, extending the if-then statements in this week’s Torah portion to the whole human race, have pointed out that our wanton degradation of the world’s air, water, soil, flora, and fauna result in poisoned food, sickness, and rising sea levels, all of which can result in starvation, death, and exile. We can certainly argue that if society as a whole does not put the welfare of our planet first, then disasters will follow. And perhaps taking care of the earth is one way to love and serve God.
But it is not the only way. What about all the commandments in the Torah? What about all the other acts of kindness and right behavior we should be doing?
I believe that the two if-then statements in this excerpt from the Torah portion Eikev do not reflect literal reality, and can only be considered poetic exaggerations. Yet I also believe that loving and serving the divine does have good consequences, and letting ourselves be fooled into worshiping harmful ideologies does have bad consequences.
So I am struck by the last sentence in the excerpt from Eikev that is used as the second paragraph of the Shema. After repeating the reminders in the first paragraph to always keep “these words” in mind, the second paragraph ends:
So that your days yirbu, and the days of your children, upon the land that God vowed to your forefathers, to give to them as the days of the heavens over the earth. (Deuteronomy 11:21)
yirbu (יִרְבּוּ) = will be many, will become numerous, will increase.
“Your” and “you” in this sentence are plural. So on a simple level, the sentence might mean “So that your people will live a long time in the land (Canaan) God promised to give your ancestors—as long as the sky is above the earth”. In other words, every individual must die, but as long as you all obey God, your people can live in Israel forever.
Maybe this promise was motivating when Deuteronomy was written (probably in the 7th century B.C.E.). But today, many Jews who choose not to emigrate to Israel need a different kind of promise.
In the 19th century, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote that “as the days of the heavens” means that days on earth would be like days of heaven. Following his lead, I would retranslate the sentence at the end of the excerpt this way:
“So that your days will increase in fullness and value, and so will the days of your children; and the potentials of your ancestors will be realized in you and your children; and every day on earth will be full of the divine.”
Not only is this a good reward for good behavior, but it actually works. If you keep your attention on loving and serving God—the inner divine voice, or the spirit of life, or all humanity—then your days really do improve. They may even become heavenly.