“Is There Truth to the Notion of Spiritual Accountability?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

This coming week’s Torah portion, Parashat Eikev, contains the well-known second paragraph of the Shema prayer found in Deuteronomy 11:13-21, which begins with the words, “V’hayah im sha’moah,” And it shall come to pass, if you harken diligently to My commandments.

In the first paragraph of the Shema prayer, the Torah speaks of the reciprocal love relationship between G-d and the people of Israel. It is with this declaration that the Jews, from time immemorial, have accepted the dominion of G-d. The second paragraph of the Shema prayer elaborates on the theme of the first paragraph. “V’haya im sha’moah” speaks of the responsibility and accountability of the People of Israel toward G-d. In effect, the Torah asks: Ultimately, what does love mean? Are not words often mere platitudes? After all, if we do not accept upon ourselves responsibility for our actions toward the ones we profess to love, then the love that we have expressed is in fact fatuous and meaningless. And just as we need to be accountable in our human relationships, so too must we be accountable in our relationship with the Divine.

The words of the second paragraph of the Shema are straight-forward. No beating around the bush. Clearly and forthrightly, the Torah proclaims the doctrine of reward and punishment (Deuteronomy 11:13-21): If you serve G-d with all your heart and with all your soul, G-d will give the rain of your land in its season, you will be blessed with abundance of wheat, wine, and oil, you will eat and be satisfied.

But, if you turn aside and worship other gods, the anger of the L-rd will be kindled against you. He will seal the heavens, there will be no rain, the land will not yield its fruit, and you will perish quickly from the good land which the L-rd gives you. G-d, in effect, pleads: Take My words into your hearts and souls…teach them to your children, so that your days may be lengthened.

We city dwellers often find it difficult to relate to the agricultural threats in the Bible which seem so anachronistic. But these threats are surely real. The heat waves and the droughts are not yesterday’s nightmares, they are clear and present dangers. The blackouts that regularly strike the United States of America take place on the most sophisticated electrical grid, in the most technologically advanced country in human history. Those failures, which take no small toll in human life, should give us all reason to pause and reassess our almost blind reliance on contemporary technology and science.

Our Torah is conveying to us an even more compelling message, a message that the sophisticated 21st century citizen has much difficulty comprehending. While our enlightened technological generation has little difficulty accepting the basic rules of physical science, we often dismiss the possibility of spiritual rules and the notion of spiritual accountability.

And yet, the notion of spiritual accountability should not be alien to us. In the physical and scientific world we are well aware of the rules of strict accountability. The scientists posit, without fear of contradiction, that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. No ifs, ands, or buts! The law of gravity, Bernouli’s Principle, and the Quantum theory all go unchallenged by both experts and lay people. We all acknowledge that if we pollute our environment, we pay a price. If we deplete the ozone layer through the use of fluorocarbons, we surely increase the likelihood of our exposure to the harmful rays of the sun, and increase the incidence of skin cancer. Clearly there is physical accountability.

But what about the spiritual world? If we harm our environment through spiritual pollution, do we pay a price? Jewish tradition says that we indeed do. How? Firstly, Jewish tradition clearly and firmly maintains that the reward for a mitzvah is a mitzvah, and that the recompense for sin is sin (Ethics of Our Fathers 4:2). Very often the wages of sin is the guilt we bear, which unsettles us. Sometimes no further punishment is necessary beyond the mental turmoil and anguish that the sinner experiences. But often the punishment for sin has physical manifestations as well. While we dare not say that sexually transmitted diseases are necessarily a punishment for improper sexual behavior, we certainly need to ask ourselves why sexually transmitted diseases exist at all. And, how did it come to pass that a dreaded new sexually transmitted disease, AIDS, suddenly appeared just when profligate sexual behavior had risen dramatically?

Because sinful behavior is often irresponsible behavior, there is little doubt that we often pay a physical price for these actions. While the idea of paying a physical price for incorrect spiritual actions, may seem far-fetched, the idea should not be dismissed. And if we do disregard it, we do so at our own peril. Dare we say that the ozone layer is not affected by our spiritual pollution? Dare we state categorically that our sinful behavior does not manifest itself in physical disease, in spiritual or mental illness, in harmful behaviors that are mimicked by our children, our students, our disciples, or our co-workers?

Ideas and beliefs change rapidly in our frenetic-paced world. After all, only two centuries ago it would have been ludicrous to suggest that we would be capable of communicating to foreign countries over air waves, or to instantly transmit photos from foreign planets. Ideas which seemed preposterous only yesterday have become reality today, and are virtually taken for granted tomorrow.

There surely is spiritual accountability. G-d and His Torah categorically affirm this notion. There is no question that we can surely rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem–but the first step to rebuilding that structure must be the spiritual repair of our hearts.

May you be blessed.