Rabbi Michael Friedland
As we begin our preparation for the Yamim Noraim it is worth taking a moment to consider our prayerbook, a book we will be spending quite a bit of time with during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The siddur as a whole is truly an intricate, well-constructed edifice in which each component leads to the next.
One example is the Shema where Sages tell us the order of the three paragraphs is essential. The first paragraph proclaims the Oneness of God and that God is the exclusive focus of our devotion. Paragraph two develops the idea of the importance of mitzvot. And the last paragraph speaks of one mitzvah, the tzitzit which remind us to do all the other mitzvot as well as the paradigmatic moment of redemption, God’s role in the Exodus from Egypt.
But what do we do with a prayer when we no longer believe in its theological underpinnings? Do we jettison it, do we change it, do we change ourselves- the prayer is correct my theology is skewed? The second paragraph of the Shema, ‘V'haya Im Shamoa’, besides emphasizing the role of mitzvot in Judaism, teaches a conventional theology accepted by the Bible and our Rabbinic ancestors but troubling for many moderns. The claim of the paragraph is that if we obey God's commandments, God will "grant the rain for your land in season...You shall gather in your new grain and wine and oil...and thus you shall eat your fill.” If we don't obey, God "will shut up the sky so 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".
This view assumes that God controls all of history and nature, which together form an integrated panorama. Therefore, God could and would use the natural processes to reward or punish human beings for their behavior.
But many of us find these views difficult to swallow at best, repugnant at worst. Based on our scientific knowledge of the atmosphere we have difficulty believing that the presence or absence of rain indicates Divine favor. The rabbis were also sensitive to this and spoke of the world pursuing its natural coarse. Nature seems totally oblivious to good and evil. Biology is not morality. That is, if a natural disaster hits or someone gets sick we do not look for the cause in the city’s or person's behavior.
One can hold or reject such a theology. But for the worshipper when one has to pray a prayer that promotes a religious theology that one does not accept, what does one do?
The notion of reward and punishment was so dubious to early American Reform Jews that they removed this paragraph from their prayer books. The Reconstructionist movement also dropped it from its prayer books. Mordecai Kaplan their founder and editor of their prayerbook, stated that he could not believe that “the process of meteorology is dependent on man's moral behavior". Clearly for these movements theological integrity was more important than tradition. They could not pray what they did not believe.
But lo and behold in the 1989 edition of the Reconstructionist prayer book the second paragraph of the Shema is back in! What happened to affect its return? Did the Reconstructionist get frum? No rather times change and today there is a new ecological consciousness. We are aware of the relationship between our deeds and the fate of the earth and its resources. It was no longer theologically unthinkable to believe that if we continued to abuse our earth, in effect to disobey God's commandments which demand that we as guests on this planet take care of our Host's earth, rain will not fall in its proper season, or the rain that comes will be polluted. Ecology is now a moral issue and this passage acquired new relevance.
Just as modern interpreters of Shakespeare do not erase his words because they come out of a social and cultural milieu different from ours but rather place them into different contexts and draw out new insights by changing the historical period of the drama or the ethnic makeup of the characters, so too we can find inexhaustible meaning in the rabbis’ arrangement of how we should speak to God.
For our ancestors living in the land of Israel rain was a great need and a prominent symbol of human dependency on God. A theology that suggests that God responds to human action seeks a God that is just and concerned. This God is not the God of the deists who believed God created the world and let it run according to its own laws. He is not the capricious god of Shakespeare’s King Lear: ‘As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport.’
This does not mean that we can readily defend such a Biblical theology in light of experience. But it is an idea we cannot live without. For human life to have meaning our actions must count and that is what this paragraph teaches us.
Another expression of our God and our tradition of what a powerful God means is located in the second blessing of the Amidah. In the Gevurot blessing we acknowledge that God is the most powerful force in the Universe, which is why we come to God to make petition. But the imagery offered as examples of Divine power are not blowing enemies to smithereens or crushing those who disobey. The examples are upholding the fallen and healing the sick, freeing the captive and bringing life to that which is lifeless. This concept is found in Deuteronomy: For the Lord, your God, is God supreme and Lord supreme, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who shows no favor and takes no bribe, but upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing. You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
This is a lesson we need not only learn but also promote and teach to our leaders. True power is not bombast, it’s not cruelty and intimidation. Real power is the power that heals and integrates the outcast and weak.
Every day our liturgy provides us with lessons about what the basic beliefs our tradition wishes to instill within us. Even when it seems that the message is no longer in keeping with the times, the wisdom of our sages perseveres and informs us that even if today these words may not make sense to us tomorrow they might. The test of religious truths is that they withstand the vicissitudes of history. Our tradition wants us to become more sensitive, empathic and kind individuals. Our daily prayers assist us in that direction.