Good Ecology Makes Good Theology
How will the Torah reading for this week, Parashat Eikev, stack up against last week’s reading (Va-ethannan), which included no less than the Ten Commandments and the Shema’? Obviously, that will be a hard act to follow! Be assured, though, that Eikev has plenty to offer us as well.
Most of Deuteronomy comprises several major speeches that Moses delivers to the Israelites as they are poised to enter their new homeland, especially because (as he has known, and as they recently found out) he will not be with them there. It is, therefore, reasonable to understand Moses’s discourses as his final attempts to educate the people, to exhort them to behave according to God’s commands in the future, and to explain what will be the consequences of their actions. As such, last week’s reading and this week’s—which together form most of Moses’s second major valedictory speech to the people—provide two aspects of one integral message.
In last week’s reading, Moses offered the grand announcement, the front-page headlines supplemented by some amplification. This week, he follows up by emphasizing and clarifying even further the consequences of the people’s actions, in language and imagery designed to put more teeth into the grand ideals of the Ten Commandments. Eikev further grounds the theory in realities. It is designed to emphasize how the principles will function in practice, when the exhilaration of the Sinai memory has begun to fade, and the Children of Israel must face the daily responsibilities of communal life as God’s people in their new surroundings. Eikev, like so much of Deuteronomy, conveys a highly utilitarian—one might be tempted to say crass—theology. If the nation observes God’s laws and remains faithful to God’s Covenant, God will favor the people in very specific ways: with human, animal, and agricultural fertility; with health; and with protection against disease and enemies. Conversely, if the nation is unfaithful to God or the Covenant, the rains will not fall at the times they are needed, the produce will wither, and the people will “perish from the land.”
Really? Is that a theological stance most readers of this column, enlightened and thoughtful as they are, can believe in 2012? If we violate Shabbat or don’t observe kashrut or don’t recite the daily liturgy, will it really not rain? Perhaps many of us see that thinking as simply an old-fashioned belief that was fine for our ancestors “way back then,” but which no longer holds water (so to speak). After all, that kind of theology sounds more like bribery, extortion, or even magic: by our enacting certain behaviors, we determine God’s actions in return.
However, an essential component of Conservative Jewish interpretation and understanding of the Torah is the assiduous avoidance of the easy—but dangerous—trap of literalism. We need to appreciate the widespread and conscious use of metaphor and poetry in the Torah, and then try to understand what issue, value, or concept may underlie specific biblical terminology in the text before us. Once we reach that step, the next challenge for us is to retranslate that essential core into new metaphors that can become meaningful today.
Fortunately, we can take as our starting point a comment made by Rashi (11th century, France) and other classical commentators, who see an interesting relationship between Deuteronomy 6 (the first paragraph of the Shema’, from last week’s parashah) and Deuteronomy 11 (the second paragraph of the Shema’, from this week’s parashah). They notice what appears to be a repetition between the two passages, but with an important difference. The earlier chapter is written in the singular, while the second passage is in the plural. Perhaps the point is that when the group, the community, obeys the Covenant, the rains will come in their due time and the ground will be fertile. If so, what might be the command whose fulfillment leads to that outcome? We can only speculate, of course, but it seems reasonable to hypothesize that our responsibility (mentioned all the way back in the early chapters of Genesis) to “have dominion over the earth” is relevant. To the degree that we take our role of ecological stewardship seriously, for instance, we might help nature run its “normal” course.
The Torah, of course, didn’t understand ozone-layer depletion, ultraviolet radiation, or the greenhouse effect. More than that, the Torah isn’t a science textbook, and it wasn’t intended to be one. However, the narrative of the Torah does recognize that human actions have effects, even global effects. Violating our responsibility to protect the earth seems to lead to increased drought, famine, and disease. To the degree that we can minimize destruction of the ozone layer by cutting back our use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), we help enable the rains to fall at their proper times, we help enable the proper growth of vegetation and animals, and we help reduce diseases such as skin cancers. Television news almost every evening reminds us that these are, indeed, very real concerns for us.
Finally we turn to the insight of one additional commentator, Nahmanides, also known as Ramban (13th century, Spain), who explains that the miracle of God’s providing timely rain doesn’t always happen. In other words, this isn’t automatic; it isn’t guaranteed. However, Ramban—a philosopher, commentator, and physician—probably understood that we give ourselves the best chance of being blessed by God by doing the right thing and fulfilling our communal responsibility to the earth.
Following last week’s charge, each of us must make our individual contribution to helping repair the world, by actions such as reducing our carbon footprint, driving vehicles with excellent gas mileage, and supporting legislation designed to strengthen and protect the ozone layer. This week, Parashat Eikev tells us that if we all work together in these efforts, we will help God protect the planet. Good ecology makes good theology.