August 28, 2016 § Leave a comment
Sometimes the Torah presents us with a viewpoint that we find challenging.
In Parashat Ekev, we find one of the speeches that Moses delivers to the Israelites just before they enter the land of Israel. Even though it is an important text, I am not a fan of its theology.
Here is what it says:
If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the Lord your God and serving Him with all your heart and soul, 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 — 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 Lord’s anger will flare up against you, and He 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 the Lord is assigning to you.
I have always objected to the tit-for-tat approach advocated here: is God allocating good things as rewards and bad things as punishments? I can think of so many counter-examples as to why this theology simply does not work.
And I am not alone in this approach: this text appears in the traditional v’ahavta recitation but not in the Reform version, on account of its problematic theology. This is one of the parts that we skip.
However, a book by Nogah Hareuveni has caused me to re-think this passage.
Don’t get me wrong – it is still problematic theology to say ‘God will clearly reward you if you do good and clearly punish you if you do wrong’ – that’s not what has changed in my view. Rather, Hareuveni has suggested an interpretation of the text that shifted my understanding of what is being said here.
Noah Hareuveni was the founder of Neot Kedumim – The Biblical Landscape Reserve in Israel. I visited Neot Kedumim during the year I lived in Israel and found it fascinating. His work has influenced my understanding of the Bible in many ways – for example, if you have heard me speak about the link between matzah and beer, you should know that my interpretation was inspired by his scientific study of Israel’s nature in Jewish sources.
So here’s what Hareuveni had to say about this passage: “On entering the land of Israel, the Israelites were faced with the problem of adapting to very different conditions and farming methods.” In Egypt, crops were watered from irrigation ditches that had been drawn from the Nile River. In Israel, however, the local agriculture “was totally dependent on rainfall brought by wind-driven clouds.” So, he argues, “it could have seemed reasonable to assume that in the land of Israel the rains were controlled by some deity unknown in either Egypt or the Sinai.” New terrain, new agricultural methods, new gods.
So, according to Hareuveni, this passage regarding early rains and late rains is directly related to the difficulties faced in successfully farming the land of Israel.
In Hareuveni’s view, it is not a coincidence that this speech names the seven species, the quintessential list of the produce of Israel. Specifically, Moses tells the Israelites that “…the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with streams and springs and fountains issuing from plain and hill; a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey…” The species on this list are there for a reason.
“The common denominator,” Hareuveni explains, among these seven species
“becomes apparent during the fifty days between Passover and Shavuot…During this period, between mid-April and mid-June, the flowers of the olive, grape, pomegranate and date open, and the embryonic figs begin to develop. During this same period, the kernels of what and barley fill with starch. Thus the fate of the crops of each of the seven varieties is determined.”
And, as he explains, “In the land of Israel…[the Spring] season is distinguished by multiple changes and climatic contrasts. Scorching southern winds alternate with cold winds from the north and west. The former bring with them extreme dryness and heat, while the latter darken the skies, generating tempestuous storms, with thunder, lightening and rain.”
In other words, the north wind is needed for the wheat to ripen properly. But if it does not come at the proper time – if it arrives too soon, for example – then this much-needed rain ruins the olive, date, grape, and pomegranate harvests.
On the other hand, the dry southern wind that is rather beneficial for the olive, date, grape, and pomegranates, can yield disastrous results for the barley and wheat if it should scorch them before they ripen.
So, if it is read in context, the main point conveyed in this difficult passage is not that God will reward and punish us for obeying the commandments, but rather, that there is only one God who has created everything, including the northern and southern winds. These opposing winds that ripen the seven species in due time are not two opposing demi-gods vying for power. God, and God alone, is responsible for everything that happens in this world. Do not go astray and start thinking otherwise.
Interestingly, this passage underscores the fact that Israel’s climate is a particularly fragile one. In our era, I worry that Israel is particularly vulnerable to the effects of global warming and rising oceans.
Which brings me back to the question of theology. When it says, “If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the Lord your God and serving Him with all your heart and soul, I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late,” – does that mean that careful observance of the commandments will prevent catastrophe? No. We are responsible for the consequences of our actions. Ignoring the environmental effects of what we do will indeed invite catastrophe.
And that may well be the point of the next part of the passage: It says, “Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and bow to them. For the Lord’s anger will flare up against you, and He 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 the Lord is assigning to you.”
Perhaps this isn’t retribution – it’s a statement of natural consequences. What you do matters.
So let me propose a different way to look at this text. I would say that pretending that the world works differently than it does – that is, ignoring the laws of science – one is, in a sense, bowing to other gods. Pretending that our actions do not have an impact is not unlike saying there are many gods, each responsible for a specific outcome, and you can get the outcome you want by praying to that god and asking for magic.
Monotheism is the recognition that all of the various things that happen are all interrelated. What you do matters. And will continue to matter. And hoping that some magic demi-god will erase our efforts and make it all better will not save us.
In preparation for the High Holidays, I recommend thinking about this question: what would you do – how would you act – if you lived continuously with the awareness that everything you do really fundamentally matters?
 Deuteronomy 11:13-17, JPS translation.
 Nogah Hareuveni, Nature in Our Biblical Heritage, Chapter 1.
 Deuteronomy 8:7-8
 Ibid. Author’s emphasis.
 Ibid. Author’s emphasis.
 Deuteronomy 11:13-17, JPS translation.