When I first began to pray regularly several years ago, the second paragraph of the Shema—which we read this week in Parashat Ekev (Deut. 11:13-21)—was an example of the punitive theology that most alienated me: God punishes those who don’t listen to Him (in this case, yes, Him—a male God). God will send droughts and famines to those who disobey; plentiful food and a peaceful climate to those who do. As elsewhere in the Torah, God is angry and demanding of obedience.
Now, as I read of droughts and famines each day when praying this paragraph of the Shema, I can’t help but think of the state of our current planet and the direction in which the vast majority of scientists predict that it is headed. The proclamation here—that earth is being destroyed as a result of humanity’s own actions—rings true.
I can see now that this text from Parashat Ekev explains what really happens when humanity as a whole does not live in ahavah and avodah—the love and service mentioned in this paragraph; when we serve “other” gods such as the god of profit or expansion.
There is another line in this week’s parashah that struck me: something that Moses says to the Israelites in his grand continuous speech. He says:
“מַמְרִים הֱיִיתֶם עִם־יְהֹוָה מִיּוֹם דַּעְתִּי אֶתְכֶם׃”
“You have been rebellious with God since the day I knew you.” (Deut. 9:24).
On the peshat (surface) level, it’s clear that this is meant as a critique. It goes with the theme of Moshe’s other reprimands throughout the book of Devarim. But something about it makes me feel almost proud while reading Moses’s description of the Jewish people: rebellious from day one.
This is not a people that simply accepts orders and marches on. No, we need to complain, question, and rebel every step of the way! Although rebelling against God, the eternal One, is not praiseworthy, perhaps there is some virtue in rebelliousness itself. If we are to challenge our leaders’ complacency in the face of the climate emergency, this rebellious spirit of questioning rather than simply following, is something we will need to hold on to.
I know for myself it is so easy to become discouraged when thinking about the future of our planet. It is easy to want to avoid reading and learning about it. But this rebelliousness is the opposite of complacency, and I take inspiration from it.
I think there is another lesson in this parashah, in the second paragraph of the Shema, that can teach us how to rise to the occasion of this moment.
This second paragraph of the Shema has very similar language repeated from the first. In both we have the command to love and serve with all your heart and soul. Rashi points out that in the first paragraph of the Shema we have: “בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ֥ וּבְכָל־נַפְשְׁךָ֖,” “with all your heart and all your soul” (Deut. 6:5)—written in the second person singular “you.” We have almost the same language in the second paragraph of the Shema, the one in this week’s parashah, with a slight difference: “בְּכׇל־לְבַבְכֶ֖ם וּבְכׇל־נַפְשְׁכֶֽם”, with all your hearts and all your souls—you all, plural (Deut. 11:13). The key here is that we are banded together. This is an injunction on the whole community, Rashi points out, whereas before we had an injunction only on the individual. We need to reach out to each other; we need not feel that this work is ours alone to bear. In this “you all,” in this banding together, I find a spring of hope.
May this Shabbat of Parashat Ekev bring us closer to a realization of our interconnectedness, our healthy spirit of rebelliousness, and of choosing hope over fear.