As we enter the countdown to the High Holidays (Rosh Hashana is exactly six weeks from Shabbat Ekev), we find ourselves being exhorted in the parsha by Moshe to walk the walk (God’s walk) and to follow God’s commandments. Familiar, right?
Yes and no. The fact that almost all of the prophets repeat the same message indicates how often it was forgotten. In fact, reading through the books of the Bible, from Judges and Kings through 15 prophets, we come away with the feeling that somehow, Moshe’s message got lost.
We are told in the parsha (and in others) to destroy the idols of the other nations, to keep away from other gods and symbols of other gods, yet 85 percent of the kings of Judea and even more of the Kingdom of Israel either introduced or allowed idols. Even the allegedly wisest of kings, Solomon, built temples to the foreign gods of his multiple foreign wives.
Just a week or two ago archaeologists found a stash of ceramic ware from the First Temple period, and wouldn’t you know, it contained lots of little home goddies.
A serious question emerges from the parsha, and from others in the Torah. We are told – in a paragraph that we read as part of the Shema each day – that if we are good little children the rains will come at the right time, the fields will bloom, the animals will have what to eat and we will be well fed, content and satisfied. But if we don’t follow the commandments, the rains will not come and life will be hell.
Let’s look at the winter we had in the light of this clear albeit simplistic formula. The Kinneret reached almost 100% capacity!!! Waterfalls and streams in the north were frothing and bounding like Switzerland on the Jordan! So, according to the formula in the Shema, we should have been able to pat ourselves on the back and say, ‘What good little children we were to God.’
But then there was Coronavirus, you say. It has killed over 500 people in our country, it is disrupting our economy and social life like nothing we have seen before. But it didn’t start here, it didn’t kill thousands and tens of thousands as in other countries. It is a PANdemic, encompassing everyone. And it could be much worse here than it is.
So again, are we goodie goodies who are being given their reward or it is just the luck of the draw? No rain for four or five years and then a wonderful winter to give us breathing space for the next four or five drier years?
We could say that the Torah was written for the time it was given, when agriculture was the way of life and rain was the lifeblood of a country. Therefore, a threat of no rain was a threat to one’s livelihood and even to life itself, and was taken seriously. But that simply begs the question.
Rabbi Lauren Berken offers a possible insight. This quid pro quo idea, which appears abundantly in the Torah, should be understood in context. And the context is the transition from the desert to Canaan. From divine providence as a way of daily life to a more “normal” existence.
When you have eaten your fill, and have built fine houses to live in . . . and everything you own has pros- pered, beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget the Lord your God. . . who led you through the great and terrible wilderness . . . a parched land with no water in it, who brought forth water for you from the flinty rock; who fed you in the wilderness with manna . . .—and you say to yourselves, “My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.” Remember that it is the Lord your God who gives you the power to prosper (Deut. 8:12–18).
What are the people warned about? Coming into the land, settling in well and being overwhelmed by self-complacency. When you have eaten your fill, and have built fine houses to live in . . . and everything you own has prospered, you say to yourselves, “My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.” You will sit back and say, ‘I did it all.’
Not quite. Looking at the façade, at the shell, at the surface – everything seems to reflect you and what you did with your hands. But scratch that surface. Take away one small element of life here – the rain – and you’ll see how everything tumbles down like London Bridge in the nursery rhyme.
Citing the classical commentator, the Rashbam, Berkun calls the rain a safeguard, a reminder that we are not the boss. Everyone talks about the weather but no one does anything about it, said Mark Twain (and others). That’s because they can’t. And that’s the message.
I do not believe in linking “divine punishments” to specific actions or behaviors. Yet indirectly and blatantly the current pandemic reminds us how little control we have over our lives and how easily they can be upset, whether by drought or by virus.
What can we do? Our parsha tells us that what God wants is for us to adhere to His commandments. Among the prophets, Micha condensed the 613 commandments into three elements that form their core: justice, mercy and walking humbly with your God. That’s not so difficult. In these days, it is also wise to add to the list adherence to all safety precautions.