Ekev: justice and mercy, individual and society, unity and interdependence from the Shema to the Days of Awe

Ask most Jews to explain the Shema and chances are they will think only of the first paragraph. They will speak of the Affirmation of the unity of God, the centrality of that belief to Judaism. Many Jewish commentators wax lyrical about the Shema as confession of faith through the ages. There are stories of those who die “al Kiddush HaShem”, prolonging the words of the Shema until they expire, leaving this world with the proclamation of their belief in the one God. Others speak of  the duty to love God that is spoken of in the prayer, the requirement to keep Gods commandments and to teach our children to do so. They remind us of the awareness of God that is to be present at all times and in everything we do – whatever we look towards, whatever our hands are busy with.

So central to Jewish theology is this prayer, that the early leaders of the Reform Movement made a deliberate policy to highlight it during the services, and hence many progressive congregations would stand whilst the first paragraph is being recited, and some even open the ark so as to further underline the point.

But the Shema itself is actually comprised of three paragraphs, and in our zeal to highlight the first we have cast the other two into shadow. We are aided and abetted in this by our own siddur which offers other passages for reading in silence as well as the full text of the shema.

It is not surprising that the reformers were less keen to proclaim the sentiments of the second paragraph, for whilst the first has an underlying principle of Loving God, this one had as its essence the principle of Fearing God.

Here we have the God of Righteous Retribution. The powerful God of Justice whose requirement and commandments must be fulfilled on pain of death. No room for negotiation here, only unswerving dedication and acceptance of the mitzvot will do. This time God is perceived as rewarding the good and punishing the wicked. There is no middle way and there is no way out. If you truly listen go God, love and obey completely, the rains will come at the right time and the land will be fertile and productive.

If however your heart strays to other gods, then there will be no rain, the land will not produce and disaster will come

The equation is simple and horribly clear. Obeying God means remaining in the land which is lush and fertile; disobeying means the likelihood of a horrible death from famine.  Jeremiah, describing one such drought wrote: “Judah is in mourning, her settlements languish. Men are bowed to the ground and the outcry of Jerusalem rises. Their nobles sent their servants for water; they came to the cisterns they found no water. They returned their vessels empty. They are shamed and humiliated, they cover their heads. Because of the ground there is dismay, for there has been no rain on the earth. The ploughmen are shamed they cover their heads. Even the hind in the field forsakes her new-born fawn because there is no grass. And the wild asses stand on the bare heights, snuffling the air like jackals. Their eyes pine because there is no herbage”( Jer 14:1-6)

Rain in its due season, life giving water, is a gift from God. God may choose to withhold it and so cause wholesale death as punishment. This is the theology of the fundamentalist  who blames the difficulties we experience as punishment for someone’s (usually someone else’s) sin . It is a perception of God that is both childlike and horrific, a god without mercy who dispenses reward and punishment with machine like efficiency and no extenuating circumstances to be taken into account.

Small wonder the Reform Movement had no desire to weight this paragraph with the same glory as its predecessor. Small wonder the MRJ siddur took to printing it out only once, and in other places laconically writes “during the silence the second and third paragraphs of the Shema may be read, or the following” and then gives us uplifting selections from Isaiah, Proverbs or the Holiness Code in Leviticus.

Traditionally the three paragraphs are printed in full whenever the Shema is to be read, and the rabbis of old had other way of dealing with this rather frightening aspect of the almighty. Prayers for rain in their due season are recited in services, the principle prayer being recited during Musaf on the last day of Sukkot and from then until Pesach the sentence “mashiv ha ruach umoreed ha geshem” is inserted into the Amidah (who causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall). After Pesach another prayer for dew is recited and there are several other petitionary prayers recited at the appropriate times of the year.

The prayers for rain are amongst the earliest of all the liturgical texts and are clearly a response to the fear of divine threat that would withhold rain as punishment. If these prayers do not work, then the Mishnah lays down another response – that of fasting. The structures become greater the longer the period without rain, from people of merit fasting during daylight hours for three days to eventually the whole community fasting a total of thirteen days, with no washing, little business transacted and so on. The bible may describe certain punishment, but the rabbis modified it to take account of repentance.

Other responses take account of the fact that we do not often see the righteous rewarded nor the wicked punished in everyday life, though the development of the idea of an afterlife is later than the text here in Deuteronomy but once it appears in our philosophy, it means that punishment need not be tied into the agricultural year.

The book of Job was written as a response to the convention wisdom that all who are afflicted in life have in some way deserved it. Maimonides coped with this threat of divine retribution by writing that people should first serve God for a reward in order to learn to serve God without any motive – he took the view here (as with the sacrificial system) that ideal worship has to be learned and will not come without a process of weaning away from other forms. Hence this was a necessary stage in the history of the development of the relationship of the Jewish with God.

A more modern attempt to cope with this difficult second paragraph is to look at it in context with the first. In the first paragraph the underlying principle is love and the wording is in the singular – you will love God and do God’s commandments.  In the second paragraph the underlying principle is that of fear, and through the fear will come the acceptance of the yoke of the commandments – most of which cannot be done without other people.

The wording is in the plural precisely for that reason. One can fulfil the first paragraph alone, but for the second paragraph to be valid, other people are vital. The shema moves from the relationship of the individual with God to relationships within society. For these relationships to work there must be rules and sanctions, boundaries must be set in place for the security of all concerned. Love alone will not enable a society to function smoothly – courts of laws are needed to.

We are moving towards a time of the year when the image of God as Judge is becoming stronger. Soon we shall be entering the moth of Elul with its lead up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Nachmanides wrote that Rosh Hashanah is a day of judgement with mercy and Yom Kippur is a day of mercy with judgement. Either way both mercy and judgement are part of the unity of God, interdependent and of equal importance just as we see in the full shema.

There is a Midrash that before God made our world God first made and destroyed other worlds. Some were made only with justice but no one could survive. Some God made only with mercy and love but the inhabitants were anarchic and constantly destroyed each other. Finally God made a world with a blend of the two, an imperfect but pragmatic world that worked. And that was when God knew that it was good.

Va’etchanan and Nachamu:In approaching God with our desires we may yet find comfort and the chance to rebuild

The Shabbat where we read parashat Va’etchanan is named for its haftarah: it is Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath of consolation.

After three weeks of haftarot that speak of rebuke, that have ratcheted up the anxious anticipation of the forthcoming cataclysm that is Tisha b’Av, we now begin the seven weeks of consolation, leading us to the possibility of a new start with God at Rosh Hashanah, reminding us that whatever the catastrophe, God is still there for us.

For a period of ten weeks we are liturgically reminded that it is time to put in the work to repair our relationship with God.

Va’etchanan begins with Moses reminding the people of his asking for God’s graciousness, asking to be allowed to enter the land that his whole life has been dedicated to guiding the nascent Jewish people towards.  He says “I besought God at that time saying, Adonai Elohim; you have begun to show your servant your greatness, the strength of your hand. For which god in heaven and earth can exist who does like you do? Please let me cross over so that I will see the good land that is beyond the Jordan, that good hill country and the Lebanon.  But God was angry with me because of you (the way you behaved) and did not listen to me and said to me, ‘Enough, do not speak more of this matter’…  Go up to Pisgah and look [in all four directions] …and command Joshua and strengthen him and encourage him….”

Va’etchanan ends an era, albeit with the pain and frustration of Moses played out publicly before the people. A line has been drawn; it is time for the next leader, the next stage of the people’s history.

Nachamu begins with the repeated imperative to “Comfort yourselves”. It goes on to speak to the heart of Jerusalem to say that that her time of service is over and her guilt paid off, that she has received from God double for all her sins.  A voice is calls: Clear the route of God in the wilderness, make a highway in the desert for our God. Every valley shall be raised, every mountain and hill diminished, the rugged will be levelled, the rough places smoothed.  And the glory of God will be revealed and everyone shall see it, for the mouth of God has spoken it”

One can read the Isaiah as a counterpoint to Va’etchanan, a response to Moses’ anguish that he will not be there to guide and escort the people in the land they are ready to enter: – Isaiah stresses the point that while yes the people will stray, God will still be there for them. The pathway that has led from Egypt to Mt Sinai, and from Mt Sinai to the Promised Land in a wandering and circuitous route, will become clear and defined and will link the people and God in a pathway that is easy to see and to tread.  The repetition of the imperative “Nachamu” echoes the repetition of the angel calling to Abraham at the site of the Akedah, reminding us that when we are so involved in our own ideas and world view it takes more than one call to drag us out of our intense concentration to be able to see a bigger picture.

But I think the Isaiah speaks not only to past time, but to present and future time. The passage speaks of a change in the landscape so that all the landmarks we are used to have gone, a levelling so that the valleys and mountains are brought together to one flat plain where no one and nothing can hide. It erases the peaks and the troughs, the domains of the heavens and the earth which shall never quite meet. Instead it speaks of human mortality and the eternity of the word of God. It speaks of catastrophic worldly and political change and of the consoling continuity of our relationship with God.

Whose is the voice calling in the wilderness demanding proclamation?  Whose is the voice asking what should be proclaimed?  Like the voice of the shofar at the revelation of Mt Sinai, these voices are ownerless in the text; we can claim them or project onto them.

The voices can be ours, demanding justice, demanding fairness, demanding relationship with God. Just as we are told that “the mouth of the Eternal has spoken” we are given a voice to speak back, to have a dialogue not only with each other but with our creator.

We are in the liturgical run-up to the Days of Awe, when God is said to be more present in the world, more willing to listen to us, more focussed on repairing the gaps that have emerged between us. As Isaiah reminds us “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever…. O you who tells good news to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with strength, lift it up and be unafraid, say to the cities of Judah “Behold your God”. Behold the Eternal God will come…even as a shepherd who feeds his flock, who gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them in his breast…”

Immediately after Tisha b’Av in the shock of the loss it commemorates, it is important to re-orient ourselves from mourning to life, to repair our own lives and to work for the greater good of our communities so that the glory of God is to be revealed, so that everyone shall join the work of repairing our world.

Behukkotai: redemption requires ongoing action.

The sidra Bechukkotai ends the book of Leviticus, and concludes with the verse “These are the commandments which the Eternal commanded Moses for the children of Israel in Mt Sinai”

A book which is primarily dealing with the ritual system overseen by the hereditary priesthood, a book whose rabbinic name is Sefer Cohanim (The Book of the Priests), is seen by itself as holding a much wider remit, putting into context the sacrificial cult of priest and altar, clarifying the notion that the relationship between God and Israel is available to each and every person, and is framed into the construct of covenant.

            At the beginning of the sidra we are told of the great blessing which will be given to the people if they observe the Torah, 11 verses detailing the blessings of economic stability, peace and prosperity, and finally God’s presence among the people. This is followed by the tochecha – the admonition and curse, with 30 verses which warn of the destruction of the land, the destruction of the nation and their exile, for the sin of violating the commandments.

This set of warnings, which here are told to Moses by God in the desert, are repeated in an even more concise and forceful manner by Moses just before his death forty years hence.

When you study these two versions of the warnings, and compare then with other biblical texts warning about destruction and exile, you find a curious and certainly deliberate absence. Usually the warnings which are found in bible end with the promise of Teshuvah – that God will restore us from our captivity as soon as we return to God. The certainty of ultimate redemption is spelled out for the reader. If we actively seek God then God will redeem us. But the rebuke in this sidra, like its parallel text in Deuteronomy, does not state that redemption will surely come. Instead , at the end of chapter 26 of Leviticus (arguably the original end of the whole Torah), after the warnings of destruction and exile, we are told   “I will remember My covenant with Jacob and also My covenant with Isaac, and also My covenant with Abraham will I remember,; and I will remember the land” and God goes on to say “When they are in the land of their enemies I will not reject them, neither will I abhor them, to destroy them utterly, and to break My covenant with them; for I am the Eternal their God. But I will for their sakes remember the covenant of their ancestors, whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations that I might be their God, I am the Eternal”(26:42,44-5)

These verses, which resonate in this text, are ones which countless generations of Jews have held close. They are a huge comfort to many generations, yet they do not talk of redemption or of return to the Land. What they tell us is that God continues to remember the covenant – but they don’t tell us what that means. The covenant is remembered by God and so we are not lost however dark our days may be. The fact that the patriarchs are named in reverse order is used as the proof text for the tradition of Zechut Avot – the merits of our ancestors which we can call upon in difficult times. If our own merits do not help us than we enlist those of Jacob. If his don’t do the trick then we enlist the merits of Isaac and finally we can call on the merits of Abraham, who, as the first person to make a covenant with God will surely come to our aid.

            The tradition of Zechut Avot – that the merits of our ancestors will be added to our own at the time of judgement, and so will enable us to survive, is debated at length in the rabbinic literature and there are those who claim it continues to operate, and those who claim that the merit has been exhausted – our own sins by now far outweigh any ancestral good deeds. But all the commentators agree that whatever the status of Zechut Avot, the covenant made with our ancestors remains in force, it is the covenant which effectively ensures our continuing existence and our continuing meaning.

            Within the bible there are two types of covenant – there is the Noachide Covenant when God promises that the natural order will not change, a promise made by God which does not require any action or even response from people. Then there is the covenant as understood by Abraham and his descendants, the covenant that is described by God who does not forget. This is a covenant of mutuality – mutual obligation, mutual understanding, mutual responsibility. “I will be your God and you shall be My people” – there is an interdependence here, a way of defining and identifying through the other party in their relationship. This covenant is still in force even at the end of the tochecha – it remains in force because God remembers it. But there is no promise of redemption because redemption is not an automatic consequence of God remembering – we need the concept of mutuality – whether the covenant can be executed will depend not only on God remembering but on US remembering. For the people to find redemption they must act properly, responsibly, within the terms and conditions of the covenant.

            In the midrash we are told that:

“Three things were given to Israel conditionally – the Land of Israel, the Temple, and the Kingship of the House of David. And two things were given unconditionally – The Torah and the hereditary priesthood”

What is not mentioned is redemption – we have no automatic right to such a state of being, no magic formula of faith in God which will ensure that we are saved. Judaism teaches us, (and it bases its teaching from within the two passages of the tochecha), that we are in a position of covenant with God, that we have all the rights and obligations and responsibilities that such a relationship entails, and that the purpose of such contract is not that we individually save our souls through our belief, but that we work to save the world through our actions which themselves are rooted in the contract/covenant relationship we have accepted with God.

That contract can never be broken, whatever we do or don’t do, wherever we are, and however we view ourselves. Because God remembers the covenant, and God remembers the land. And God waits for us too to remember, and having remembered, to act.