“Is There Truth to the Notion of Spiritual Accountability?”
(updated and revised from Eikev 5763-2003)

by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s Torah portion, parashat Eikev, contains the well-known second paragraph of the Sh’ma prayer found in Deuteronomy 11:13-21, which opens with the words of G-d’s powerful promise and admonition: וְהָיָה אִם שָׁמֹע, And it shall come to pass, if you harken diligently to My commandments.

The first paragraph of the Sh’ma prayer, found in Deuteronomy 6:4-9, speaks of the reciprocal love relationship between G-d and the people of Israel. It is with the pronouncement of the first line of the Sh’ma prayer that the Jews, from time immemorial, have accepted the dominion of G-d upon themselves.

The second paragraph of the Sh’ma prayer,  וְהָיָה אִם שָׁמֹעַ, expands on the theme of the first paragraph, focusing on the relationship of responsibility and accountability of the People of Israel with G-d. In effect, the Torah asks: Ultimately, what does love mean? Are not the words with which we profess love, 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 express is, in effect, fatuous and meaningless. And, just as we need to be held accountable in our human relationships, so too, must we be held accountable in our spiritual relationship with the Divine.

The words of the second paragraph of the Sh’ma 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 with His children: Take My words into your hearts and souls…teach them to your children, so that your days may be lengthened.

Contemporary city dwellers, who are so detached from the land, often find it difficult to relate to the agricultural threats in the Bible which seem so remote and anachronistic. But these threats are surely real. Heat waves, and droughts are not yesterday’s nightmares, they are clear and present dangers. The blackouts and the devastating fires that regularly strike broad swaths of our country, take place on the most sophisticated electrical grid and in the lushest forests and farmlands, 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.

Through the words of the Sh’ma, the Torah conveys to us an even more compelling message, a message that the sophisticated 21st century citizen has much difficulty comprehending. While our technologically-enlightened generation has little difficulty accepting the basic rules of physical science, we often dismiss the 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. Scientists the world over posit, without fear of contradiction, that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction–no ifs, ands, or buts! The laws of gravity, Bernouli’s Principle, the Quantum theory all go unchallenged by both experts and lay people. There is virtual universal acknowledgment 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 do indeed. How? Firstly, Jewish tradition clearly and firmly maintains that the reward for a mitzvah is a mitzvah, and that compensation for sin is sin (Ethics of Our Fathers 4:2). Very often the wages of sin are 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 consequences as well. Has our profligate behavior regarding waste, radon contamination, PCBs not resulted in whole areas of the earth to become uninhabitable, and lake and ocean life dying? Is it really a coincidence that new and dreaded sexually transmitted diseases seem to appear just when promiscuous sexual behavior becomes more acceptable? Does anyone really believe that inhaling millions of nano particles of plastic will not affect our health? And what of the tens of thousands of young people who have died of drug overdoses and shootings? Is this not a confirmation of a serious spiritual malaise in our society? Could the COVID-19 epidemic be a signal for humankind to finally “Stop and smell the roses”?

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 farfetched, 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 woman could vote, or 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. The golden lining that results from the notion of accountability is that there really is no question that we can surely rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem–but the first step to rebuilding the Temple must be the spiritual repair of our own hearts and souls.

May you be blessed.