Rabbi Arthur Waskow
When Torah Says the Breath of Life is ONE:
2d Paragraph of Sh'ma
This week, the Jewish reading of the Torah moves deeper into the Book of Deuteronomy. One of the powerful passages in this week's portion is Deuteronomy 11: 13-21 -- so powerful that in traditional prayer-books, it was treated as the second paragraph that comes just after the Sh'ma – the affirmation/ reminder of God's unity.
In quite direct translation, it says:
"If you hear, yes hear (shamoa tishma'u) the commandments/ connections (mitzvot) that today I command you/ connect you to, to love YHWH/ the Breath of Life your God and to serve Him [sic] with all your heart and every breath, then I will rain upon the earth in its right-time, autumn rain that falls like an arrow and the soaking rains of winter, and you will gather in your grain, your wine, and your olive oil. I will give grass in your fields for your cattle. And you will eat and be satisfied.
"Take care lest you twist your heart, turn aside, and become serfs* to after-thought gods, bowing down to them. Then the Breath of Life will choke till the Face of YHWH will blaze, He will close up the Heavens, there will be no more rain, and earth will not give forth its fullness. Swiftly you will be forced* off the good earth that YHWH gives toward you.
"So place these words/deeds upon your heart and in your every breath, and bind them as a sign upon your hands, so they will be reminders between your eyes. Teach them to your children, to say them over and over, when you sit in your houses, when you walk on your roads, when you lie down and when you rise up. Write them on the doorposts of your houses and on your city-gates.
"So that your days and the days of your children be expanded, upon the earth that YHWH seven-fold-swore to your forebears to give them, as days like Heaven upon the Earth. "
[* In Hebrew, the words I have translated "serf" and "force" are a word-play, both sounding the same – avad -- though spelled with different vowels. The closest I could come in English was to use "serf" and – the same sound backwards – "force." If you act like a serf to after-thought gods, your abundance will be reversed and you will be forced off the land where you acted serf-like. If you abandon forethought, following mere after-thought gods, the God of truthful forethought, reversing reality, will reverse you.]
Some people have objected to this passage on the grounds that it seems to promise direct rewards for good behavior and punishment for bad behavior, and thus is belied by our life experience. Indeed, it has been dropped from a number of contemporary prayer-books, or downgraded to an "alternative" status.
And even in synagogues where it survives, it is usually muttered in an undertone. The same congregations that say the first paragraph after the Sh'ma with vigor and attention, and that focus on the fringes mentioned in the third paragraph with strong intentionality, race through the second paragraph so that few worshippers actually experience its meaning.
Can we learn anew from this passage?
First of all, we make many problems for ourselves if we insist on translating "YHWH" as "Adonai/ Lord" -- which it surely does not mean -- and thus treat YHWH as some power utterly separate from, above, and beyond us. To credit such an all-powerful King/ Lord/ Judge with punishing our very transgression and rewarding our every act of goodness certainly does not accord with what we know happens in our lives.
I draw, instead, on the deep sense of "YHWH" as a Breathing (that is how it comes out if you try to "pronounce" it with no vowels) and hear it as the Breath of Life which is within us, between us, and beyond us. Many of us might hear it as something like "the In-Out Breath that connects all life and being." It gives a Name to the truth that what we breathe in is what the trees breathe out, and what the trees breathe in is what we breathe out.
Now, with that in mind let us look back at the text. On the one hand, at the level of individuals it is certainly true that the life-process in which we walk and breathe often does not let us reap from life what we sow. My own experience is that the Universe has some bias in that direction: that is, individuals who put out love and justice into the world are somewhat more likely to bring love and justice back than those who put out anger, hatred, or fear. But it is certainly not a one-to-one certainty, as the Book of Job and the Holocaust remind us.
But at the level of societies as a whole, I think there is much more truth to the second paragraph of the Sh’ma (and that is whom it's directed to; the pronouns are second person plural, unlike those in the first paragraph).
What 's more, while most Jews are no longer "farmers" in the narrow sense, ALL Jews and the whole human race still take part in the great flow of rain, sun, earth, seed, which make up the rhythms of earth. And those rhythms are (a) crucial; (b) in crisis; and (c) responsive to human behavior.
So I think that in our generation, this second paragraph is vital -- literally, offers us the choice of life or death — and should be read with great devotion and attention. I read the Sh’ma and its second paragraph as saying:
"Listen, you Godwrestlers! -- YHWH, Yahh, the Interbreathing of all life, is the Name of our God -- and the Breath of Life is ONE.
"If you listen, REALLY listen to the teachings of YHWH, the Breath of Life, especially the teaching that there is Unity in the world and inter-connection among all its parts, then the rains will fall as they should, the rivers will run, the heavens will smile, and the good earth and all its creatures will feed you and each other.
"BUT if you shatter the harmony of life, if you chop the world up into parts and choose one or a few to worship ---- like gods of wealth and power, greed, the addiction to Do and Make and Produce without pausing to Be and make Shabbat ---- then the Breath of Life will come as a hurricane to shatter your harmony.
For if you pour poison into earth and air and water, then it will be poison that you eat and drink and breathe. The rain won't fall [or, it will turn to acid], the rivers won't run [or, they will overflow because you have left no earth where the rain can soak in], and the heavens themselves will become your enemy [the ozone layer will cease shielding you, the Carbon Dioxide you pour into the air will scorch your planet], and you will perish from the good earth that the Breath of Life gives you.
So, therefore, set these words/deeds in your heart and in every breath, carry them in every act toward which you put your hands, and make them the pattern through which you see the world. Teach them to your children, to repeat them to their children; stay aware of them when you sit in your houses, when you travel on your roads, when you lie down to dream and when you rise up to act. Write them on the thresholds where you cross from world to world ---- the doorposts of your houses and your city-gates.
"So that your days and the days of your children grow more, grow deeper, grow higher, upon the earth that the BREATH OF LIFE swore to your forebears to give them --
"So that as Shamayyim, Heaven, is where Eysh and Mayyim, Fire and Water, can live in harmony together, you can make the earth a harmonious haven, can live upon the Earth days as filled with harmony as Heaven."
May our human communities renew the deep forethought, the deep breath, that honors all the Breathing life of earth.
-- Arthur Waskow
(Midrashic translation for our generation by Rabbi Arthur Waskow of The Shalom Center)