איזהו חכם? הרואה את הנולד – Ayzehu hakham? HaRo’eh et haNolad, “who is wise? One who sees what is being born.” (Pirke Avot 2.9) So few of us, then, can think of ourselves as wise. We try in so many ways to affect our future, would give anything to know our future, to affect it in just the way we wish, or at least to know what will happen at times of great desire or fear. But we can’t even clearly understand all the results of our own actions.
Our parashat hashavua is called Ekev, meaning “because of” or “as a result of”; literally “on the heels of”. The parashah seems to be offering us a reassuring picture of our future: it begins with a description of the good that will follow because we have responded to the summons of the Shema to listen, to obey, to carry out the mitzvot. Later on in the parashah, we get the specific ethical forecast (later this section will be excerpted from the Torah to become part of the Shema section of our siddur):
“The rain will fall in season, the former rain and the latter, and you will be able to harvest your grain, your wine and your oil. There will be grass in the fields for the animals, and you will eat enough to be satisfied. Be careful not to misunderstand this, turning toward other sources of blessing, for then G-d’s anger will be kindled and the heavens will be sealed up – there will be no rain and no harvest, and you will perish quickly from what was a good land.” (Devarim 11.14-17)
It is in the last few generations that we have seen this description actually become true, ironically enough after a period in which modern humans began to scoff at language such as this. Ha! we said. Ethics don’t affect the rainfall or the harvest – look at how an unethical person may still be a successful one.
Our mistake was in assuming our own frame of reference for this warning, instead of understand the Biblical proportions. After a century of misunderstanding the planet and its needs, turning toward materialism and the profit motive as sources of blessing, we are, after all, experiencing precisely this: the heavens are sealed when they should be open, and rain falls not in its season, and we begin to see the consequences in harvests of hunger, and cynicism, and fear.
None of us could understand that the forces of progress and science were anything other than a blessing, and they do carry blessings – none of us could see what other forces were also being set in motion. The same is true of capitalism, or democracy, or introducing rabbits into Australia, or a random kind gesture to a stranger. We are not wise, and it is hard to see what is being born in the moment.
But after enough experience, and some learning from those who came before us, perhaps we can begin to develop the habit of taking for granted that something might be in the offing that we cannot see. Perhaps we might gain the humility of ceasing to assume that we already know the future. And then we will understand the parashah’s beginning: וְהָיָה עֵקֶב תִּשְׁמְעוּן – v’hayah ekev tishme’un, “And it will be because you listened.”