Fire, flood and famine. War, violence and pandemic. No matter where we live in the world, we face devastation every day. Feeling like we’re caught in a vise, making it hard sometimes to breathe, or think, or plan, it’s natural that we would turn to Torah for help and relief. But then we come face to face with what we read this Shabbat in Ekev, the third parashah of the Book of Deuteronomy.
Here, the so-called Deuteronomic theology is in full display: If you obey God, you will be rewarded; if you disobey, you will be punished. Here, God, through Moses, lays out the choice in language that people who live off the land will understand:
“If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the Eternal your God and serving [God] 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 also will 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 down to them. For the Eternal’s anger will flare up against you, shutting 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 Eternal is assigning to you.”
These words are familiar to anyone who davens regularly from a traditional or Conservative prayer book, as they make up much of the second paragraph of scriptural verses that immediately follow the Shema. They do not appear in the prayer books of the American Reform movement, where we have trouble praying what we do not believe. And our experience of everyday life tells us not to believe Deuteronomy’s theology.
We are not the only ones troubled by this disconnect between theology and reality. Two millennia ago, the early Sages, who witnessed the destruction of the Second Temple and the death and desolation that accompanied it formulated the notion of the olam haba, the “world to come,” as the place where people would finally get what they deserved in this world. The Mishnah (Sanhedrin 10:1) teaches us: “All Israel have a portion in the World to Come,” excepting heretics who reject Torah itself.
Rabbi Ovadia of Bartenura, in his classic fifteenth-century Mishnah commentary, gave a beautiful description of the ultimate reward of the good people who might have suffered in this world: “The righteous sit with crowns on their heads, and enjoy the brilliance of the Divine Presence.”
That’s a lovely image. And the olam haba may give some comfort to those who struggle with theodicy and the question of God’s place in our lives. But the fact remains that we all still must live in the olam hazeh, in “this world.”
The natural devastation plaguing us today, when flash fires destroy whole towns and monkeypox has joined Covid as a worldwide plague, may well be, as Rabbi Harold S. Kushner once wrote, an inevitable consequence of “living in a world of inflexible natural laws.” But our response to them – and to the destruction caused by humanity in senseless violence and deadly war — is not fixed. It is not inevitable. And this may be where we look for the answers to the troubling questions raised by this Torah portion.
What we’re given here seems like is a very rigid concept of good and evil, of reward and punishment, that bears little resemblance to real-life. But let’s look at it in the context of the rest of Torah portion, which is introduced by this call by Moses’s to the Israelites:
“And now, O Israel, what does the Eternal your God demand of you? Only this: to revere the Eternal your God, to walk only in divine paths, to love and to serve the Eternal your God with all your heart and soul . . .” (Deuteronomy 10:12)
And how do we do that? Moses tells us that, too:
“Cut away, therefore, the thickening of your hearts and stiffen your necks no more. For the Eternal is God Supreme . . . who upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing – You too must befriend the stranger, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:16-19)
This is the context into which Moses now places the promise of the blessings of rain in its time, and new grain and wine and oil.
So perhaps this not a rigid notion of Divine gifts and retribution after all. Perhaps the examples that Moses gives of God’s gifts to us are meant to be a metaphor for the gifts we ought to be giving one another — if we are acting in God’s image and following God’s example.
Perhaps the reward of goodness comes from the good we do for others, a natural outgrowth of loving and serving God with all our heart and soul – one soul at a time. Upholding the cause of the weak. Treating the stranger with respect. Giving what we can, when we can, to people we do not even know whose lives could be transformed by open hands and hearts.
The answer to this dilemma of good and evil, of reward and punishment, may be as simple as Moses’s added personal appeal to each of us:
“Love the Eternal your God and keep God’s charges, laws, judgments and commands, every single day.” (Deut. 11:1)
Ken yehi ratson. Let this be God’s will, and our mission here on earth.
 Deuteronomy 11:13-17. Translation by Jewish Publication Society.
 Mishnah Sanhedrin: A New Translation with a Commentary by Rabbi Pinhas Kehati (Jerusalem: Eliner Library, 1994), Chapter 10, Mishnah 1, pp. 137-138 in the paperback edition
 Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen To Good People (NY: Schocken Books, 1981), p. 134.