Tefillah Tuesday: Reward and Punishment

The second “paragraph” of the Shema [והיה אם שמוע, Deuteronomy 11.13-21] repeats the themes of the first section – loving and heeding [literally: “hearing”] God and teaching to the Torah to future generations – and uses the same vocabulary, of inscribing the Torah on our doorposts and upon our heads and arms.

This second paragraph adds a theme that has been controversial all the way back to rabbinic times and before: the Torah’s insistence on reward and punishment in this real world. If you follow the commandments, loving and serving God, “I will give rain for your land at the right seasons, fall and spring, and you will reap your grain, wine and oil. I will make your fields sprout with grass for your beasts, and you, too, will eat and be satisfied.” And if you fail to observe, or turn to false gods? “God will be enraged with you, and shut off the heavens, and there will be no rain, the land will yield no produce and you will perish swiftly from this good land, which the Lord your God gives you.”

Spoiler alert: that’s not how it typically works. Weather and agriculture don’t really seem to responsive to our ritual or even ethical behavior. An ancient Jewish sectarian text – the Christian book of Matthew [5.45] – noted that “God makes the sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain upon the just and unjust alike.” Could Matthew be commenting on the Shema itself?

More conventional Jewish sources record the same dispute. A somewhat “orthodox” Mishna [Kiddushin 9.10, 39b] promises that every good deed is recompensed with longer life and every sin with the opposite. But the more cynical Rabbi Jacob replies: “There is no reward for mitzvot in this world,” but only in the world to come.

And would we even want it to be different? Would we want God to be standing above us pushing the drought button, just waiting to make us starve to death for our misdeeds? Would the threat of ready punishment or instant reward really help us do mitzvot morally and worshipfully? Or would that just make us selfish babies who want Big Daddy to give us presents?

In all events, since daily experience reminds us that the good can suffer and the wicked sometimes prosper, how can we daven this passage? Maybe we cannot. Reform prayer books omit this paragraph altogether as did the first generation of Reconstructionist prayer books. [More recent Recon prayer books include the traditional as one of two alternative texts.]

I myself think we can usually find some meaning in the classical passages. That’s midrash for you. If you restricted yourself to only the semantic [peshat] meaning of any text in its ancient context, you’d daven or practice very little indeed. But midrash of our bible and our siddur are what keep Judaism alive and thriving. We can apply it here too.

You might reinterpret this passage as teaching an environmental allegory: destructive behavior – acting immorally toward God’s creation, burning, poisoning, exploiting it – certainly can wreak havoc with weather and agriculture. It’s not failing to keep Shabbat that stops the rain, it’s greenhouse gases we recklessly emit. As you daven this passage, you might hear the Torah warning you that environmental devastation is not a divine punishment; it’s a consequence of our ethics.

Another possibility: Heschel spoke of the prayerbook as teaching us to “dream in league with God.” Sacred texts do not necessarily describe the world as it is, but the world as it should be, when divine justice ultimately prevails, when order overcomes chaos. You could daven this passage to remind yourself of the faith that God is ultimately good, even a paradigm of goodness. But like every genuine ideal, that goodness is unrealized in this world.

I myself daven this passage as poetry, not prose, as a metaphoric figure for my relationship to God. When I listen, אם שמוע תשמעו, when I love and serve God, לאהבה את ה’ א’להיכם ולעבדו, I find the world full of blessing and bounty. But השמרו לכם פן יפתה לבבכם, “take good care lest your heart seduce you” into worshipping idols. Modern idolatry may lie less in the appeal of false deities than in the tendency to worship ourselves, or the instruments of our power, like money and fame.

When you turn from serving God to worshipping those demons, then truly ועצר את השמים/ve’atzar et hashamayim, then God indeed closes up the heavens. Due to our selfishness, God – or we and God together – stop up the sources of blessing, not the drops precipitation, but the drops of inspiration, the possibility of connection between us and what is eternal. When I daven the second paragraph of the Shema, I try to remember that my behavior, my mitzvot and my sins, can keep the skies open or lock them shut.