The recitation of the Shema in our tefilot includes three passages selected from Deuteronomy and Numbers. I find the second paragraph, Deuteronomy 11:13-21, the most challenging one to read. It tells us that if we obey mitzvot, love God, and serve God will all our hearts and souls, we’ll know success – we’ll have nourishing rains, successful harvests, and satisfying sustenance. If we follow bad temptations of our hearts, God’s anger will flare against us, the sky and earth will not sustain us, and we’ll disappear from our good land that God has promised us.
Kinda grim. Heck, it’s 2020.
This theology of reward and punishment often doesn’t seem to unfold empirically. It helps to know that the Bible’s stance on reward and punishment changed over the course of the assembly of the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible. In fact, after sifting through all the punishments in the Book of Job, God never speaks directly to human beings again within its pages. It’s as if God said “I made enough snarky comments in my youth; now I know to be more cautious when I speak.” That’s good advice from God. I am working on taking that advice, myself.
Most of all, though, the second paragraph is notable for what it doesn’t say. Remember what it says: “if you are good, things will go well for you.” It doesn’t say “If things are going well for you, you must have been good.” That statement is the so-called “converse”, which you learned, in 10th grade geometry, is not necessarily true.
The fallacy of the converse – the idea that if things will go well for you, you must have been good –is demonstrated just a few chapters away, again in Deuteronomy. When we find lost property, such as a neighbor’s ox or garment, we must endeavor to return it. In the Talmud, in Baba Metziah, we learn detailed specifics about the obligation to reunite lost property with its owner.
This is one thought I bring to the recitation of the Shema. Our tradition gives detailed emphasis on our obligations when we happen upon unearned valuables, even something we find on a sidewalk or a metro car. This is one small way that we shouldn’t imagine that just because good things happen to us, we deserve it. Good fortune is not necessarily something we deserve, only something to feel grateful for.