Over the years I have noticed that when it comes to the recitation of the Shema prayer, most Jews readily chant the first paragraph of the Shema with enthusiasm. The first paragraph reads:
Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone! Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength. Take to heart these words which I enjoin on you today. Drill them into your children. Speak of them at home and abroad, whether you are busy or at rest. Bind them at your wrist as a sign and let them be as a pendant on your forehead. Write them on the doorposts of your houses and on your gates (Deut. 6:4-9).
The recitation of the second and third paragraph of the Shema generally fails to inspire the same kind of enthusiasm. Here is the passage in question:
“If, then, you truly heed my commandments which I enjoin on you today, loving and serving the LORD, your God, with all your heart and all your soul, I will give the seasonal rain to your land, the early rain and the late rain, that you may have your grain, wine and oil to gather in; and I will bring forth grass in your fields for your animals. Thus you may eat your fill. But be careful lest your heart be so lured away that you serve other gods and worship them. For then the wrath of the LORD will flare up against you and he will close up the heavens, so that no rain will fall, and the soil will not yield its crops, and you will soon perish from the good land he is giving you. “Therefore, take these words of mine into your heart and soul. Bind them at your wrist as a sign, and let them be a pendant on your forehead. Teach them to your children, speaking of them at home and abroad, whether you are busy or at rest. And write them on the doorposts of your houses and on your gates, so that, as long as the heavens are above the earth, you and your children may live on in the land which the LORD swore to your fathers he would give them” (Deut. 11:13-21).
Simply put, actions matter. Actions have consequences. Moderns might feel uncomfortable with the carrot-and-stick approach of Deuteronomy, but its message is still compelling.
Our scientific age is certainly far more sophisticated than anything the ancients might have imagined, yet the meaning of the second paragraph of the Shema conveys an idea that is surprisingly modern and contemporary.
An ecological appreciation of the world reveals that all lifeforms are interconnected. The old paradigm of Newtonian and Cartesian physics conceived of the world through the metaphor of the clock. The universe was once seen as a set of simple systems resembling a well-tuned ticking pendulum. These systems, if disturbed, may malfunction if their behavior is veers from normalcy. Their movements seemed predictable and manageable in its very nature.
Now we have discovered that there are in a manner of speaking, clocks within clocks–exponentiated. The inner workings of our world are so exquisitely sensitive to circumstance that even the smallest disturbance produces large and ever-growing changes in their behavior that are difficult to fully calculate.
The meteorologist Ed Lorenz observed while studying the earth’s weather systems that the smallest variation in the input to his equations produced exponentiatingly large deviations in the behavior of his solutions. He referred to this cascade of changes as the “butterfly effect.” Thus, a butterfly stirring the air with its wings in the African jungle today will generate consequences for the storm systems affecting Boston within three weeks. Since our knowledge about African butterflies is limited, detailed long-term weather forecasting will prove to be difficult to anticipate–but the effects are nevertheless in a perpetual state of causality. (By the way, this same kind movement can also be applied with respect to economics, as seen this past year’s gyrations of the stock market.)
Actions matter–and what applies to the realm of natural events especially applies to the moral events we as individuals make. With the recent BP oil spill disaster, we can see an ecological impact that effects not just the Gulf region, but ultimately the lifeforms of the entire planet! Continue reading “BP, the Bible, and the Butterfly Effect”