If You Only Observe My Commandments

Have you ever wished that someone would just do what you asked of them? Perhaps it is an obstinate child or a friend who won’t take your advice. Have you threatened to punish the person for his/her disobedience? A familiar passage from the end of our Torah reading should come to light.

The sixth Aliyah in Parshat Eikev has become the second paragraph of the Shema. It begins by stating that if the Israelites listen to and follow G-d’s commandments, specifically when they are living in the land of Israel, they will be rewarded with rain in its proper time as well as flourishing crops. In contrast, if they disobey, there will be no rain. The commandments are supposed to be bound on our hands and between our eyes (the Tefillan) and inscribed on the doorposts of our homes and our gates (the Mezuzah).

This passage, at the center of our worship, has troubled many, including the rabbis, who stated צדיק ורע לו רשע וטוב לו, “the righteous suffer and the evil prosper.”[1] Because of this, the Reform Siddur has excised this paragraph of the Shema and the Reconstructionist offered an alternative section about blessings that will befall our people when they enter the land of Israel.[2] The question is just because there are examples liturgy?

In the Conservative Movement, rather than removing passages which seem incongruous with contemporary life, we keep them in and try to reinterpret them. I truly believe that our performing mitzvot contributes to improving society. Our taking one day out of a week to rest recharges our batteries, making us better parents, employees and friends. Following the commandments to look after those most vulnerable in our society helps protect those who have no advocates, strengthening them to hopefully one day be in a position of self-sufficiency. Our inviting people who have nowhere to go to Rosh Hashanah dinner or Yom Kippur breakfast not only engenders goodwill but also motivates them to “pay it forward” and continue to look out for others.

Even if we do not always see the manifestations of justice in the world, we must strive to believe in a G-d who is just, who wants our betterment and for us to do what we can to strengthen those who need support. A Talmudic statement reads מה המקום נקרא רחום וחנון אף אתה  הוי רחום וחנון, “Just as G-d is compassionate and merciful, so too must you be compassionate and merciful.”[3] The passage continues that we must follow every one of G-d’s 13 attributes because we are commanded to “walk in G-d’s ways”[4] and as G-d is called all of these things so too must we emulate G-d.

What it means for us to listen to G-d’s commandments is not just a matter of obedience but also to take on the opportunity to emulate G-d in providing for those who have needs. The people of Israel are viewed as   אגודה אחת, a collective bundle. If one of us is suffering, all of us are suffering. We therefore must ensure that we are the best people we can be, as we are emissaries of G-d working to make the world a better place. In that vein, all of us will have the crops that we need, the resources that we require in our proper time. Let us stop relying on G-d to provide for those in our midst and take it upon ourselves to contribute to creating a just society. In that vein the second paragraph of the Shema remains relevant to us, one which must be said and acted on by us at least twice a day.

[1] Babylonian Talmud Berachot 7a

[2] Deuteronomy 28:1-6 in Kol HaNeshamah

[3] Sifrei Eikev 49

[4] Deuteronomy 26:17

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