By Rabbi Matt Rutta
There is a great scene in Woody Allen’s hilarious movie “Annie Hall” in which Allen is standing in line for a movie with his date, the titular character, when he is annoyed by a man behind him in line who is giving pretentious movie reviews to his own date. Allen breaks the fourth wall and complains to the audience about such a person who is not only annoying but completely incorrect about his views on “the medium is the message” philosopher Marshall McLuhan. His soliloquy is interrupted by the pretentious man, who claims to be an authority on the topic, being a media professor at Columbia University. Woody Allen suddenly pulls McLuhan from behind a poster and McLuhan proceeds to denounce the professor for knowing nothing of his work. Allen ends the scene by wistfully complaining to the audience, “Boy, if life were only like this!”
In this week’s Torah portion, Ekev, we are introduced to the text that will later become the second paragraph of the Shema, worn by Jews in our tefillin, and inscribed in mezuzot on our doors and gates. The section, Deuteronomy 11:13-22, written in the second person plural, says (with the benefit of the accuracy of Texas English), “vehaya im shemoa tishme’u…,” “it will be if y’all listen to the commandments which I command y’all today, to love Hashem y’all’s God and to serve God with all y’all’s heart and all y’all’s soul….” Contrasted with the first paragraph of the Shema that begins with the second person singular “v’ahavta” (“and you shall love”), our paragraph adds that not only love and learning are required but also service to God and performance of mitzvot. It then assigns a reward for fulfilling it (rain in its proper season, a good harvest, plenty of food for human and animal alike) and punishment for violating it (shutting the skies so that there is no rain and thus no harvest). Now, I am no farmer, but let us assume for a moment that you and I have neighboring farms and that you are righteous and I am a scoundrel. It is extremely unlikely that nature will be upended and you get rain and I don’t. It either rains or it doesn’t!
The early rabbis 2,000 years ago were troubled by this passage and tried to answer the question of the tzadik v’ra lo: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Under persecution by the Roman occupiers, the rabbis were also tormented by the priestly Sadducees, who vied with them for hegemony. The wealthy priests enjoyed support from the Romans and would quote this section as proof that God loved them and hated the Pharisaic rabbis, who were often poor and unappreciated by the Romans. Should they gaslight themselves into believing that they were, in fact, bad people who were not performing the will of God? Should they believe that there is a World-to-Come in which their reward is waiting for them? Should they complain that there was something wrong with the system as demonstrated in the book of Job? God shows up at the end of many rounds of Job’s maintaining his innocence while his “consoling” friends claim that the blameless man must not be as blameless as he thinks. God says, out of the whirlwind, something to the effect of “you know nothing of My work!”
The truth is, we do not and cannot understand. Do we even want to understand? My cousin Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks zt”l presented his own opinion in the name of Rabbi Yekutiel Halberstam zt”l, who survived the horrors of the Shoah and lost his wife and all 11 children in the process. In a lecture to the Jewish Learning Institute, Rabbi Sacks quoted him as saying, “I know for sure that were I ever to ask [the deep questions], God would invite me up to heaven to give me the answers Himself, and I prefer to be down here with the questions than up there with the answers.” Rabbi Halberstam was Job; he lost everyone and everything. Unlike Job, he did not want the answer nor would he ask the question.
So, what does the second paragraph, written in the plural, tell us? I believe that the change of singular to plural is telling us that kol Yisrael aravim zeh lazeh: that we are responsible for one another. We are made b’tzelem Elokim, in the image of God, and are told to follow in God’s ways. However, we learn in the Talmud Sotah 14a, God is described as a consuming fire and we are not fire; we can’t even approach fire without getting burned. Rather, we are meant to emulate God by clothing the naked, visiting the sick, consoling the mourners and burying the dead. In Berachot 5a-b we learn that when our suffering seems too great, we must reach out and pull each other up. One way we can show our love for God is by showing love to our fellow human beings, which, according to the great sage Hillel, is the very essence of Torah. We may not know — or want to know — why God works in God’s ways, but we can all work together to make the world better, whether or not we get rain.
Rabbi Matt Rutta, M.A.Ed., is the director of Jewish Student Life at the Hillels of North Texas.