The most urgent work of our time

This summer, news headlines have continued to bring a huge “big picture” into clearer focus...

This summer, news headlines have continued to bring a huge “big picture” into clearer focus. What we’re watching in real time is a composite sketch being drawn from so many smaller component parts: stories about national heat waves and regional heat domes; of forests burning in Mazama, orange skies in New York, flooding in Germany; of oysters cooking in their shells and birds suffering during June’s hot stretch; of unprecedented glacial melt, sinking buildings, and drought conditions. Each individual news item becomes a piece in a much larger puzzle, and it’s getting easier and easier for us to step back and see the whole picture in sharp relief. In Rebecca Solnit’s words from yesterday, “Exiting the age of fossil fuel is the most urgent thing ever.”

This week’s Torah portion, Eikev, contains a passage that I think we would all do well to read and take to heart: Deuteronomy 11:13-21. The ancient rabbis found this particular passage so powerful that they made it part of our liturgy to be recited daily, both morning and evening, by Jews everywhere. This text, which has come to be known as “the second paragraph of Shema,” appears in the traditional siddur, sandwiched between the first paragraph, “V’ahavta” (Deut. 6:4-9), and the third, a passage about tzitzit (Num. 15.37-41).

The second paragraph of Shema bears many similarities to the V'ahavta paragraph, with its commands to take God’s words to heart, to bind them to our arms and foreheads, to teach them to our children, and to inscribe them on the doorposts of our homes and upon our gates. Along with those verses, though, this passage from Eikev also includes the lines that come just before those: about rain and fields, reward and punishment. I invite you now to take a quiet moment and read these verses to yourself – aloud if possible – to take in these words. (You can also read the Hebrew text of Deuteronomy 11:13-21, “V’haya im shamo’a,” at this link if you prefer.)

If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the LORD 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 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 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. Therefore impress these My words upon your very heart: bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead, and teach them to your children—reciting them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up; and inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates— to the end that you and your children may endure, in the land that the LORD swore to your fathers to assign to them, as long as there is a heaven over the earth.

The Mishnah (see Mishnah Berachot 2:2) characterizes this second paragraph of Shema as “acceptance of the discipline [yoke] of God’s sovereignty.” In modern times, though, its “reward and punishment theology” has struck many as too harsh, prompting the Reform movement to remove this paragraph of Shema from their liturgy over a century ago. In more recent years, the second paragraph of Shema has made a comeback in liberal siddurim (and of course, it’s been there all along in more traditional prayerbooks), and I am glad. Personally, I’m a fan of keeping the religious texts we struggle with, wrestling with them, and imbuing them with new meaning when possible. And, although I don’t believe in a Divine Being who is literally judging our personal behavior and meting out divine favor and punishment in the form of rainfall, it makes absolute sense to me to reinterpret this passage through an environmental/climate change lens. Read in this way, the second paragraph of Shema speaks to us directly, saying: you must take collective responsibility for your decisions and behaviors; actions have consequences; if you cannot curb your impulse to consume, the earth itself – the skies, the rain, the land – will not permit you to continue living in the way you are. These lessons feel deeply true in 2021… and although the big picture is becoming clearer and clearer, the message is still a difficult one to read, hear, and truly internalize.

This Rosh Hashanah, we will enter into a shmitah year: the seventh year of a seven-year cycle, during which our tradition calls on us to allow the land to rest. Over the coming year, I hope that each of us will live with an increased consciousness about our responsibility to care for our planet, and the consequences that are sure to follow (and indeed, are already presenting themselves) when we fail to do so adequately. I imagine that many of us might choose to make pledges for this shmitah year in order to lessen our negative impact and/or increase our positive impact on our environment: for example, we might commit ourselves to planting gardens with native plants to attract pollinators and absorb runoff; to drastically reducing our use of single-use plastics; to scheduling a year with less air-travel; to walking or biking or using public transportation rather than running errands by car.

These personal behavior changes we might make are important – and I urge us all to choose meaningful and significant ways to mark this shmitah year! Truly, though, individual actions like these matter most because they help us cultivate our own awareness, day in and day out, and effect culture change. When it comes to pragmatic impact, our personal choices pale in comparison to corporate behavior and government policy; our collective voice matters far more than our personal actions. Returning to the text of Deuteronomy 11:13-21, Jewish scholars have always noted that while the first paragraph of Shema speaks to the Israelite in the singular (starting “You (s.) shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might…”), this second paragraph is written in plural throughout (“If, then, you (pl.) obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you (pl.) this day…”). Today, this biblical passage drives home the point that it is our collective actions that matter most; the text calls on us to become consumer advocates, to change policies, and to vote for elected officials at every level of government who will take climate change seriously and work assiduously to effect radical change in our society.

[Relatedly, this is a public service announcement that next Tuesday, August 3rd, is an Election Day. Kavana of course cannot tell you who to vote for, but we urge you to vote your values and to return your ballot on time; our democracy is strongest when every voice is heard!]

As this summer's news helps us understand the degree to which our world is really on fire, Parashat Eikev calls on us to pay attention, to work together for collective impact, and to be steadfast in remembering these messages morning and evening. Together, let us bring about the vision of a planet in balance, with plentiful rain, grass, and food in abundance. This is the most urgent work of our time, and thankfully, we are all in it together.

Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum