The power and danger of ‘because’


This week’s Torah portion has an odd name. It is called “Ekev,” a word that in Hebrew means “Because.”

Like all of the Torah portions,  Ekev gets its name from the first prominent word in the portion. In this case, the name actually tells us a lot about the portion’s theme and outlook.

“Because.” This simple conjunction in English is often given as a shorthand answer to the question “Why?” –with the implied meaning being, “Because I said so!” or “Because I want to!” It’s not the kind of answer we hope God will give to our most pressing spiritual questions. It is dissatisfying and disquieting to think that God commands our lives to be as they are for no better reason than “because.”

But “because” is also a word that evokes one of the central reflexes of the human mind: whenever we are presented with a new or surprising situation, our brains are hardwired to seek causality and correlation. When we were children and something bad happened to us, we would instinctively probe recent events to come up with a reason – a “because” to answer our “why?”

Sometimes we would get it right by surmising, for example, that a parent was angry with us because we had drawn on the wallpaper with crayons. Sometimes we would get it wrong by assuming, for example, that a person we loved had died because we once yelled at them. It’s not hard to see how “because” can be a very powerful – and sometimes a very dangerous – word.

This week’s Torah portion of “because” includes the following important passage, which the ancient rabbis designated as the second paragraph of the Shema:

“If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving your God Adonai and serving [God] with all your heart and soul, I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late. You shall gather in your new grain and wine and oil – I will also provide grass in the fields for your cattle – and thus you shall eat your fill.

“Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and bow to them. For Adonai’s anger will flare up against you, shutting up the skies so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce; and you will soon perish from the good land that Adonai is assigning to you.” (Deuteronomy 11:13-17)

The entire passage, through verse 21, traditionally is called “Kabalat Ol HaMitzvot,” or “The Acceptance of the Yoke of the Commandments.” It was omitted from the liturgy by the early Reform Movement on the grounds that it is theologically unacceptable. Early Reform rabbis asked, in effect, “How can we teach people that those who obey God will be rewarded with food to eat and that the wicked will be punished with starvation? That is clearly not how the world works!”

As a result of the omission from Reform prayer books, there are many Reform Jews who attend synagogue regularly but have no idea that this passage was ever recited prominently, at the center of  every morning and evening service. In truth, there are also plenty of Conservative and Orthodox Jews who never notice the theological problems with the passage that they dutifully recite in their worship.

But who says that we cannot pray with words that are difficult for us to accept?

Who says that the Torah has to conform to philosophical consistency?

The passage is built on the craving of our minds to answer every “why?” with a “because.” We want to know – we need to know – that there is a rule of cause and effect that governs our world and that there are reasons behind the fortunes and misfortunes that befall us in life. The ekev proposed by the passage – the causal relationship between our behavior and divine reward and punishment – teaches us that our actions have consequences and that we must examine our responsibility for shaping the world around us.

But we should not ignore the moral danger of taking the passage too literally. If we were to believe that God always rewards the good and punishes the wicked, we might be tempted to believe that we can determine God’s approval or non-approval of people by looking at the ways that they have been rewarded or punished by God.

If a person lives in poverty, we could conclude that God must have punished that person’s disobedience. If a person lives in affluence and luxury, we might believe that God has favored that person to reward righteousness. The fallacy and danger of such beliefs is obvious.

And the Hebrew Bible also contains a view of divine causality that directly contradicts the view in this week’s Torah portion. That counterpoint can be found in the Book of Job (Iyov in Hebrew).

Job was a righteous man. Nonetheless, he was punished by God. When Job asked God why he suffered despite all his good behavior, God famously responded with a non-answer: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? Speak if you have understanding.” (Job 38:4)

In contrast to this week’s Torah portion, the Book of Job acknowledges that good people do suffer, but that it is beyond the ability of human beings to understand why. We were not there at the creation and we are not privy to God’s ways.

The law of “Ekev” says that our suffering is, in part, our own fault. Evil things happen to us when we fail to sanctify God’s presence in our lives. And that is true to some extent. The Book of Job says that we have no answers to questions about human suffering, and that is also true to some extent. We are left to find truth hovering somewhere between two contradictory statements.

In this world, which is filled with contradictions, we sometimes feel that everything is random and there is no “because,” hidden or knowable, to explain the universe. At other times, we rebel against this seeming meaninglessness and insist that there is a “because,” even if it lies beyond the grasp of our understanding, that gives our existence purpose and reason.
There is a divinity that shapes our ends, as Shakespeare wrote, and our actions do play some role in hewing them. However, it is not for us to understand exactly how or why some suffer and others enjoy fortune.

We try to make the best choices we can in life, not in order to receive a reward, but because the struggle to find meaning and purpose is itself its own reward.

RABBI JEFFREY GOLDWASSER is the spiritual leader of Temple Sinai, in Cranston.