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If Then, You Really Listen and Heed My Commandments

  • If Then, You Really Listen and Heed My Commandments

    Eikev, Deuteronomy 7:12–11:25
D'var Torah By: 

"V'haya im shamoa — If then, you listen, yes, you really heed My commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the Eternal your God and serving [God] with all your heart and soul, I will grant the rain for your land in its season. . . . 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 the Eternal's anger will flare up against you, shutting 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 the Eternal is assigning to you" (Deuteronomy 11:13-17, translation influenced by that of Everett Fox).

This section of our Torah portion is known as V'haya im Shamoa, and is included in the daily and Shabbat morning service in traditional prayer books right after the Shema and V'ahavta prayers. Reform siddurim omit it, perhaps because it feels a bit simplistic. The message seems to contradict our understanding of nature and weather: if you obey God's commandments nature will be good to you, but if you stray and serve other gods the Eternal will punish you through acts of nature.

We know much more today about how the weather works than did the ancients. We are aware of what causes drought or its opposite in intense flooding. It may feel silly to pray for God to bring rain to us in our little corner of the earth when we know that climatic movements are huge and affect large parts of our world all at once. El Nino may bring much rain to California, but the very same El Nino causes drought in Southeast Asia and Australia. It is not an issue of personal prayer. Such supplications have no impact on nature.

I would suggest a different understanding.

Our duty to God is also a duty to nature, to the world created in all its beauty by a beautiful, caring God. I don't know if God created the universe in seven days, and I don't even know what a day means in relation to the universe. But Creation did happen. That I know. And I understand the creative force behind the big bang as God. The creation of a beautiful earth and the unimaginable universe in which our tiny world is nestled is an act of grace, elegance, and extraordinary beauty.

God is not nature, and nature is not God, but God created a world in which nature is the conduit for God's bounty, the bounty of Creation. And nature is sustained by God's commandments, the command of water vapor condensing in clouds to produce rain, of gravity that pulls water down in rivulets to streams into rivers and then oceans, of photosynthesis that splits water atoms into hydrogen and oxygen, and energy to produce sugars that build plants, which provide food. Nature functions through the divine commands of Creation. Commandment is the driving force of existence.

We humans also function through divine commands, through the divine commands of Creation. We live and love, eat, move, even think — according to natural laws of atomic activity and molecular movement. Our bodies all obey God's laws in order to subsist, to survive — to live.

We can't help but keep some of God's laws and rules, for they are the natural laws of nature that drive our cells and keep our bodies in balance. But unlike God's other creations, we humans have the power and the will to upset those natural laws, to push them beyond the limit of nature's endurance.

So we have an additional set of divine laws by which we must live in order to protect the natural world that God has gifted to us. We can learn this from another Torah text about laws and life: "You shall keep My laws and My rules, by the pursuit of which human beings shall live: I am the Eternal" (Leviticus 18:5). All of these commandments are directed in the plural form. "You-all must keep My laws," says God.

If we truly listen, yes, really heed God's commandments to protect the earth through reasonable consumption, by being modest in our exploitation of nature. . . . if we serve God with all our heart and soul by utilizing clean energy and preserving our precious natural resources — our God-given natural resources — then we will be blessed with a world in which climate change will not shut up the skies or release rain in torrents, both of which are increasing causes of natural disaster throughout the world.

I love this prayer, V'haya im shamoa: "If we truly listen, yes, really heed God's commandments . . ."

Rabbi Reuven Firestone, Ph.D., is the Regenstein Professor in Medieval Judaism and Islam at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles and Senior Fellow in the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California. He is the outgoing president of the International Qur'anic Studies Association and author, most recently of Holy War in Judaism: The Fall and Rise of a Controversial Idea (Oxford, 2012).

Have Your Fill, Yet Remain Hungry
Davar Acher By: 
Amy Ross

Rabbi Firestone offers a beautiful understanding of V'haya im shamoa, "If we truly listen . . . " If we do God's will, follow God's commandments, nature will be good to us. As our modern understanding of weather contradicts this theology, Firestone suggests we read the text as a call to sustain and protect nature.

Protection seems all at once an easy and a daunting task. The course is clear — reduce, reuse, recycle, carpool, minimize your carbon footprint — yet changing our lifestyles proves far more difficult. Why do we struggle so with the tasks essential to the survival of our world, our children, our way of life?

Our portion sheds light on this with the juxtaposition of two phrases. Assuming our compliance, God promises to provide rain in its season and grass in the fields so our cattle may graze . . . "and thus you shall eat your fill. Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and bow to them" (Deuteronomy 11:15-16). The connection seems strange — why would eating our fill cause us to serve other gods?

Medieval commentator Rashi suggests that satiety is the only reason one might rebel against God (see Rashi on Deuteronomy 11:16). When we are sated, full of what we need and desire, we can become complacent. Feeling as though all is right around us, we forget the hunger just beyond. Our complacency can lead to selfishness and inaction, forgetting that even as we are full, there is much to be done to fill all corners of the earth.

In our duty to care for God's earth and the bounty of God's Creation, we must not allow ourselves to be complacent. We must not be satisfied with the world as it is, but rather strive to make it healthier for ourselves and our children. Even as we eat our fill, we must remain hungry, doing all that we can to nurture this beautiful world around us.

Rabbi Amy Ross , M.Ed., R.J.E., is director of learning and innovation at Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, TX.

8/27/2016
Reference Materials: 

Eikev, Deuteronomy 7:12–11:25
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,379–1,408; Revised Edition, pp. 1,226–1,250;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 1,089–1,114
Second Haftarah of Consolation, Isaiah 49:14–51:3
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,599–1,603; Revised Edition, pp. 1,251–1,254