Before I really get started, I’d want us to keep in mind a teaching that I learned at Shomrei Torah, in the name of Rabbi Robinson, z”l: I take the Torah too seriously to take it literally.
So I have been a happy Reform Jew for a long time, and before that I was a seder, chanukah, bagels and Woody Allen Jew, and, before that, I grew up in a Conservative household. Then I went off to a transdenominational rabbinic seminary and came upon and fell in love with the wealth of tradition and perspective available to us that we Reform Jews know so little about because our Reformer ancestors turned their back on them, for a number of reasons. Our ancestors changed the traditional liturgy in some really important and wonderful ways – they discarded the mention of the hope to rebuild the temple, they changed some of the morning blessings to leave out – thank you for not making me a woman – I say Baruch Hashem – thank God for that. They shortened the service in general.
With Mishkan Tefilah, they brought some of the traditions back, but not one that speaks to me most loudly, which comes from this week’s torah portion, Ekev, the third in the final book of the torah, Deuteronomy or Devarim. It’s the second paragraph of the Shema…
The rabbis created the section of the service I interrupted – the Shema u’virchotecha – the Shema and her blessings – to contain three paragraphs of torah text, surrounded by blessings before and after. Last week’s torah portion included the Shema and the v’ahavta. I spoke about the Shema last week, and spent so much time on it, I didn’t get to the v’ahavta, you shall love Adonai with all your heart… what we just chanted.
This is called kabbalat ol malkhut hashamayim – accepting the yoke of the sovereignty of heaven. Once we acknowledge that God is our God, and God is unity, however we define it, then we discuss our relationship with God – it’s about love, and remembering the words, teaching them and repeating them until they are like ideagrams on our hearts, our gates, in our children. We talk about the importance of transmitting Torah to our children, and finding ways to remind ourselves of our responsibilities. It’s important to notice this is in the second person singular – in Hebrew it’s obvious – and it is directed to each of us individually.
That’s the first paragraph.
The second paragraph is the one from this week’s torah portion. It is called kabbalat ol hamitzvot – accepting the yoke of mitzvot – that once we agree on this relationship with the divine, we have some responsibilities. I’m going to read it to you in English:
Deuteronomy 11:13 If, then, you obey the mitzvot that I command you this day, loving Adonai your God and serving God with all your heart and soul, 14 I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late. You shall gather in your new grain and wine and oil—15 I will also provide grass in the fields for your cattle—and thus you shall eat your fill. 16 Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and bow to them. 17 For Adonai’s anger will flare up against you, and God will shut 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 Adonai is assigning to you.
Then there is a reiteration of the v’ahavta in the second person Plural-
18 Therefore impress these My words upon your very heart: bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your eyes, 19 and teach them to your children—reciting them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise up; 20 and inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
Our Reform liturgists rejected this paragraph for two reasons:
1) it had to do with agriculture and most Jews live in cities; and
2) the theology to them was an anathema: who could believe in a God of cause and effect?
If we don’t follow the mitzvot, God will wreak havoc on the world. If we follow other gods, Adonai’s nose will get bent out of shape, and all hell will break loose. It made no sense to them. So they removed it. And I guess you could say, the third reason was – they read it literally.
Literally. So I remind you of the teaching I started with: I take the Bible too seriously to take it literally. It’s poetry, myth, deeply symbolic in a psychospiritual way.
There are all sorts of places where the Reform liturgists could make the leap from the literal to the metaphoric. But this was not one of them. And yet, really, how hard are these verses to reinterpret? To apply to what is happening around us at this very moment? If we do as we agreed – act as stewards of the earth, and as Micah tells us: Do justice, to love goodness, And to walk modestly with your God (Micah 6:8), then things should go pretty well for us. Yes, nature could get ugly, we will face droughts, fires, earthquakes, floods. But we’ll be okay. But if we turn to other gods – and here, as always, I think of greed, money, power, celebrity, our own comfort and addiction to a fossil fuel based economy… then we will be the ones to wreak havoc on nature. Was the author of this text wrong? Are we not seeing the effects of our idolatry? The gulf disasters, let alone the climate change that has stoked the fires throughout the West, could be linked to greed and to our own unwillingness to give up our carbon addiction.
This paragraph in Hebrew is in second person plural, it speaks of our communal responsibility to do as we said. We are responsible to each other and for each other. That’s another part of its beauty.
For me, this paragraph is the one that reminds me that I can’t just say I love – my husband, my daughter, my friends, the Source of Being. It demands from me that I prove it. With my actions. Every day. That I have to be mindful of what I have signed on for, in my marriage, as a parent, as a human being.