In this week’s Torah portion we find the second paragraph of what has come to be known as the shema. In the early days of the Reform movement that passage was removed from the siddur because the composers of the new prayerbook did not feel that it reflected a worldview with which they agreed. The second paragraph of the shema speaks about the rains. It asserts that if the Jewish people follow the commandments and remain faithful to God then rain will fall in its season, crops will flourish and the harvest will be abundant. But if the Jewish people turn away from God, choose to follow different paths and ignore the commandments, then the rains will not come at the appropriate times, the people will be afflicted with drought, flood, famine and disaster. The early Reform Jews determined that the world does not exist in that place of reward and punishment, there was no discernable link between our moral behavior as a people and the weather, so the paragraph was removed.
In the most recent Progressive siddur the paragraph has been returned as an optional reading for the Progressive communities. The sentiment of the prayer has not changed, the circumstances of the world have not changed, yet the prayer is now in the siddur. So what changed? The passage has come to have a new interpretation and meaning which is separate from the literal, giving it a new poignancy and depth of understanding.
Even though we know our moral behavior does not effect the weather, we have learned that our behavior does effect the environment in which we live, including the weather. Our actions are changing the weather, with the frightening report recently that July was the hottest month on record for the world’s weather. We are having an incredible impact upon the rains, the temperature and each have far reaching consequences upon our crops, our food supplies, the levels of the oceans and so much more. So although the weather patterns are not affected exactly as the Torah describes, our behavior is linked in a very direct way to the environment in which we live. Understood in this way, the second paragraph of shema becomes a poignant message about our responsibility to care for the environment and the world in which we live.
Interestingly, the rabbis of the tradition noted that the second paragraph of the Torah is in the plural. It is not individual reward and punishment but rather collective. If we as a people do not follow the laws, we as a people, will suffer. Even though some may adhere, if the majority do not, then these incidents will befall the community. It is the same with the environmental message today. What each one of us does has a profound impact on those around us. We do not exist as islands, our behavior directly affects everyone on this fragile planet on which we live.
So as we read the passage from the Torah, we recite the words of shema, may we use them as inspiration for carving a path to make change, to help create a world which is safe and sustainable for all.