Updated: Nov 1, 2021
This biblical passage from Deuteronomy 11, that is recited in Jewish tradition every morning and evening, is one of the more troubling selections in our prayerbook. Most modern Jews struggle with the theology in its first five verses. Reform and Reconstructionist prayerbooks until recently had removed all but the last verse from their liturgy. I believe it is now printed as an alternative reading in the most recent Reform siddur and a lovely paraphrase gives it a modern interpretation.
You may remember from an earlier column in this series that one of the two main sections of our morning and evening worship is the Kriat Sh'ma and its blessings. This section is introduced with the recitation by the reader of Barchu and then two blessings follow in different versions for morning and evening, praising God for Creation and thanking Him for the gift of Torah bestowed on His people in love. In return, we are to love the Lord our God, so we recite the opening passage of the Sh'ma that many of us learned by heart in our early years in Hebrew School, Sh'ma Yisrael and the V'ahavta, from Deuteronomy 6. This is followed by two more biblical passages, our focus for today, the passage from Deuteronomy 11, and the passage from Numbers 15, which we read recently in the Torah, about wearing tzitzit, the fringes on the corners of the tallit. This section of the service concludes in the morning with one more blessing, thanking God for redeeming us from Egypt and promising future redemption. In the evening, two blessings follow, another version of the one for redemption and a second asking for protection through the night.
Looking superficially at V'haya im shamoa, we may note that sections of it are very similar to sections of the V'ahavta. In fact, just as the first paragraph begins with the word “Sh'ma,” “Hear, O Israel,” this passage also has those same root letters dealing with the auditory sense repeated twice in its opening line, “V'haya im shamoa tishme'u,.” a phrase that give us some difficulty in translation, but literally says, “It shall be if hearing, you shall hear.” This is a very common form in biblical Hebrew that emphasizes the verb by doubling it. “Shamoa” can mean to hear, to listen, to pay attention, to obey, and other similar words. In this combination, various translators have decided to throw in an adverb to emphasize this listening or obeying: if you faithfully listen, if indeed you obey, or even, if you hear and obey. Every siddur I looked in had a different translation conveying pretty much the same thing.
Later in our passage we find the same commandments found in the V'ahavta, given this time not in the singular but in the plural, commandments not just for individual Jews, but for the whole community: “Therefore, keep these words of Mine in your heart and in your soul. Bind them as a sign upon your arm, and let them be a reminder (totafot) above your eyes. Teach them to your children, speaking of them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down at night and when you rise up in the morning. Write them upon the doorposts of your homes and upon your gates.” All very familiar, starting in the plural form and then for some unknown reason, slipping back into the singular when it gets to “speaking of them...” until “upon your gates.” The last line returns to the plural and promises, “Thus your days and the days of your children will be multiplied on the land which the Lord promised to your ancestors for as long as the heavens remain over the earth.”
Actually, on reflection, this last line is consistent with the troubling theology in the opening five verses though I have never heard anyone object to it. What do these first verses say? “if you will faithfully obey the commandments which I command you this day, to love the Lord your God and to serve the Lord with all your heart and all your soul.” Let me pause here for a moment to notice that again though this is similar to the v'ahavta, it is stated in the plural; it adds the requirement not merely to love God, but to serve God as well. Hence the rabbis say that the first paragraph of the Sh'ma is “kabalat ol malchut shamayim” “Accepting the yoke of the kingdom of heaven” that is, accepting God's authority in our lives. This second paragraph they say represents “kabalat ol hamitzvot” “accepting the yoke of the commandments.” You may also notice that while in the first paragraph we are called upon to love God with all our hearts and all our souls and all “meodecha” all our might or all our possessions, here that last term is omitted. The commentators suggest that when speaking of individuals in the first paragraph, there are some people who put their wealth ahead of their very lives. However, they could not imagine a whole community being more concerned with their wealth than the preservation of their lives. (Editorial comment: In some parts of this country today, obviously they were mistaken.)
So if you love God and do God's mitzvot, this passage promises that God will send rain for your fields at its proper season and you will harvest your grain, your wine, and your oil, that is olive oil. There will be grass in the fields for your cattle to eat and you yourself will eat and be satisfied. However, if you turn to worship other gods, you will suffer the consequences. The heavens will shut up and there will be no rain, the earth will not send forth its produce, and you will soon perish from the earth. According to this passage, it seems that you can recognize a God-fearing individual by how green his lawn is. As Dr. Mordecai Kaplain is said to have remarked, “God is not a meteorologist.”
Some commentators have noted that the fact that this is stated in the plural indicates that reward and punishment is a collective thing rather than individual. So if there is a drought it isn't due to the actions of any one person, but of the whole society. Even this is not terribly satisfying. Already in biblical times, people realized that what we might call blessings and curses are not determined by one's behavior or belief. “Why do the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper” is an ancient question without a completely satisfactory answer.
More recent writers have seen this passage as a reminder to us all that we bear ultimate responsibility for our world and its environment. If we do not act appropriately, we can have an impact on the earth and if we do not take action, we may soon perish from the good earth that the Lord has given us. Though that interpretation may depart somewhat from the actual text of the biblical passage, I find it more meaningful than expecting bad weather as a punishment for bad behavior.
Going back to Genesis to the creation of Adam, God places the Man, Adam, in the garden “to till it and to tend it.” This is the task of humankind. It is up to us to be the guardians of the world that God has created. True love for the Almighty means to act lovingly toward God's creation. When we do that we and all humanity will flourish on this globe and live long on the land that God has given us.