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Rewards and Blessing

The heart of our worship service is our declaration of love and loyalty to the one and unique God - the prayer we know as the Shema. The first six words (Deuteronomy 6:4) are deeply imbedded in every Jews' soul - "Hear O Israel, the Eternal is our God, the Eternal is One!" These six words form the basic Hebrew prayer vocabulary shared by all Jews and expresses the sacred ties that bind us together.

But the Shema is longer than those six words. The opening declaration is followed first by a response proclaiming the glory of the God's dominion and then by three long paragraphs from the Torah underscoring our binding relationship to God through what we say, do and feel.

The first of these paragraphs, Deuteronomy 6:5-9, the prayer that begins with the word "Ve'ahavta", expresses our promise to love God with all our intellectual, emotional and physical abilities and our commitment to demonstrate this love in our daily lives. Within this paragraph are the roots of our custom of placing a meuzzah on our door posts and our tradition of wearing tefillin during worship and the foundation of our people's commitment to values education.

The third of the these paragraphs, Numbers 15:37-41, describes the custom of placing fringes on the corners of our garments to serve as a reminder of the mitzvot, the discrete deeds that express our understanding of God's will as transmitted to us through our sacred heritage. In ancient days when we dressed in draped rectangular garments, we wore the fringes all the time. Today, since we wear tailor garments, most of us honor this mitzvah by wearing a talit during worship

The second paragraph, Deuteronomy 11:13-21, which appears in this week's Torah portion, is the longest of the three and is the most challenging. While it repeats many of the same ideas of the first paragraph, it introduces a system of material rewards and punishments that depend on our loyalty to God and the mitzvot. It claims that if we follow the mitzvot, the rain will fall on time, the land will be productive, our flocks and fields will be fruitful and we will dwell in security. If not, we will lose all our blessings.

In services at the Jewish Geriatric Home, with a congregation of people who have tried to live their lives according to the high principles of Jewish faith and are now suffering the infirmities of old age, the dissonance between what this prayer says and real life experience is often powerful. At worship, I often smooth over this discrepancy by introducing the prayer by saying that the Torah underscores the blessings of loyalty to the Jewish tradition by describing them as tangible, physical rewards, while we know that the deeper and more enduring blessings are the spiritual ones. While such a response strikes a chord in the hearts of the congregation, it begs the question why the Torah presents the blessings of loyalty to God and mitzvot is such a graphic manner.

In Judaism, as in other religious systems, the concept of "reward and punishment" plays an important role in the construction of our world-view. The belief empowers us by making us responsible for the choices that we make in life. It underscores our commitment to freedom of will and action. Yet, it is a difficult doctrine because it brings up the question of theodicy, "God's Justice" - "why is it that in this world we see the good suffer while the wicked receive rewards?"

The logic of faith is not an yes or no, either or form of logic. It is a logic of balance in which one must hold in harmony a series of mutually exclusive beliefs. In spiritual discourse different doctrines are introduced to teach different life lessons. Our charge is not to resolve contradictions.. Rather, we need to ask why does a sacred text choose to emphasize one value over another in any specific instance. We need to ask what life lessons can we discover from this verse, this chapter, or this story.

In the context of this week's Torah portion the description of rewards and punishments is not part of a discourse on God's Justice but grows out of a discussion of God's Grace. The Torah includes it to remind us that although we are not responsible for the blessings that we have received - the greatest blessing being the possession of the good land which God, the master of all lands, promised to our ancestors - we need to be thankful for them.

In the Deuteronomic world-view this means expressing our love and loyalty to God through appropriate ritual acts and demonstrating our appreciation for our blessings by blessing others less fortunate than ourselves. We directed to worship only the God of Heaven and Earth and to remember the good God did for us by redeeming us from Egypt, protecting us through the forty years of wandering in the desert and by giving us the land by generously sharing our blessings -- by caring for the poor, the homeless, the widow, the orphan and the stranger. Fundamentally, this means that our dedication to the Torah and its values is not to win God's favor but to express our thanks for God's grace.

The Shema is a prayer that articulates our loving loyalty to God and our sacred tradition as an expression of our appreciation for the blessings we have received - the liberation from Egypt, the gift of Torah, and the promise of redemption for all creation. The problematic second paragraph serves to remind us that when we lose our sense of gratitude to God, we lose our ability to receive rewards from the blessings God has given us. Gratitude, generosity, love and loyalty are truly the spiritual blessings without which our material blessings would be worthless. These are the blessings that help us live rich lives both in times of plenty and in times of want. They are the blessings that bind us together as a people with our God.
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah