Take the Torahs curses and rewards with a grain of salt

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Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25

Isaiah 49:14-51:3

Parashat Ekev expresses the classic biblical theology of reward and punishment. Moses speaks to the people of Israel as they prepare to enter the Promised Land and warns them that if they carefully obey all of the mitzvot, God will favor and bless them with goodness, bounty and health — but if they don’t, they will perish.

This message became part of the traditional daily liturgy as the second paragraph of the Sh’ma (“Hear, O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is One”). Twice each day, we recite the Sh’ma and quote this week’s Torah portion: “If you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day … I will grant the rain for your land in season … Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods … For the Lord’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 the Lord is assigning to you.” (Deuteronomy 11: 13-17)

We are reminded daily of this message of the Torah: if we do the mitzvot, we’ll be rewarded with rain, grain, well-fed cattle and abundance. But if we turn away from God, the rains will be withheld from us and we’ll be cursed.

The problem with this message, so central in our Torah and in our liturgy, is that it doesn’t hold up so well in reality! Sadly, we’ve learned all too well that being pious and doing mitzvot doesn’t necessarily lead to the rewards of a good life and that plenty of wicked people seem to go unpunished. So how do we make sense of our tradition when there seems to be little coherence between the Torah’s theology and real life when it comes to reward and punishment?

One way to approach this problem is to see the Torah not as promising reward or punishment, but rather as warning us that our actions have consequences.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow creatively translates our passage to express the idea that all of life is interconnected and our deeds can lead to harmony on earth or to environmental disaster: “If you listen … then the rains will fall as they should, the rivers will run, the heavens will smile, and the good earth and all its creatures will feed you and each other. But if you shatter the harmony of life … then the Breath of Life will come as a hurricane to shatter your harmony … The rain won’t fall [or it will turn to acid], the rivers won’t run [or they will overflow … ], and the heavens themselves will become your enemy [ … the carbon dioxide you pour into the air will scorch your planet], and you will perish from the good earth that the Breath of Life gives you.”

In other words, the message is not that God is rewarding or punishing us “from above,” but rather, it’s that we are responsible for our world.

While this theology is valuable in teaching us to take responsibility for our actions, there is also a danger in this message. Taken too literally, the Torah’s theology might lead us to believe that we are responsible for all of the misfortunes that befall us. Indeed some have perversely used that logic to explain individual tragedies and even the Holocaust.

That’s why our tradition needed to include the book of Job — to show that sometimes righteous people suffer and that what might feel like God’s punishment is not.

The rabbis of the Talmud also struggled with Deuteronomy’s theology of reward and punishment. They tell the story of a boy who fulfills the two mitzvot for which the Torah promises the reward of long life, and dies in the process.

Clearly, our parshah’s message of reward and punishment must be used with caution. Perhaps we needed a simplistic theology when we were in the early childhood of our people, just like a parent might promise a child the reward of a cookie or the punishment of a time-out in order to train good behavior. Perhaps, post-Holocaust, it’s a theology we’ve outgrown.

Rabbi Chai Levy is associate rabbi at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon.

Rabbi Chai Levy
Rabbi Chai Levy

Rabbi Chai Levy is the rabbi of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley.