Drash: On the Shma 5773/Parashat Va’ethanan [July 19, 2013]
By Ilene Cohen
Many of you may associate me with my Jewish ventriloquist puppet, Hershel, and I have been asked if I have brought Hershel here with me tonight. The answer is “no”, but on the other hand, Hershel’s voice is always within me. So in that sense, he is here tonight.
I have chosen to explore the meanings and significance of the Sh’ma from Parashah Va’ethanan in Deuteronmy. The Sh’ma is the oldest and most essential part of the Jewish liturgy and yet these two lines made up of just six words actually have the same format as Haiku. The Sh’ma looks like a tweet, and it is not even a prayer. It is actually a declaration of Jewish faith in the oneness of God.
We say the Sh’ma so often that we may not realize that it can be translated in different ways and that Rabbis and Scholars from the Middle Ages to the present day are not able to agree on its true meaning. However there is no argument about its significance. Jewish tradition gives minute directions about the time and manner of its recitation. It is inscribed in our Mezuzahs, it is the first spiritual lesson a Jewish child is taught, and the last words uttered by or spoken in the hearing of the dying. The Sh’ma is the code of faith for Jews and the words of the Sh’ma have been recited twice daily by pious Jews since the time of the Temple in Jerusalem.
Here is another interesting fact about the Sh’ma: The last letters of the first word, Sh’ma and the last word, Echad if combined, form the letters Ayin Dahlet which means “witness”. So it is said that the person who recites the Sh’ma bears witness to the oneness of God. For this reason, the letters, “ayin” and “dahlet” are written in large print in the Hebrew text of the Torah.
Now I would like to look at possible meanings of the Sh’ma as we break it down: “Sh’ma Israell” usually translated as Hear o’ Israel and it is another way of saying, “Hey, Israelites, focus your attention on the following important teachings.”
My! That sounded like something Hershel would say. His presence must be lurking around the bimah.
The second line, “Adonai, Eloheynu, Adonai Ehad” translates to “the Lord is our God, the Lord alone.” I emphasize the word, Eloheyu which means “Our God”. This translation is a description of the proper relationship between God and Israel. God, alone is Israel’s God. This not a declaration of monotheism. Instead by adding the word “our”. the focus is on the way Israel is to apply that truth. While other people worship various beings and things they consider divine, Israel is to recognize God alone. This particular translation comes from the JPS Commentary on Deuteronomy.
In other parts of the Torah, prophets Zechariah and Isaiah refer to a time in the future when all peoples will worship the one true God. But the Sh’ma is talking to Israel and not the whole world. Some scholars say that the Sh’ma indicates the existence of other Gods, but at the same time, proclaims their irrelevance.
Another interesting fact I discovered about the Sh’ma is that even though the Sh’ma consists of only six words, there are two names for God: Elohim and Adonai. One could say that these two names reflect two very different characteristics of God. In his book, “For Those Who Can’t Believe”, Rabbi Harold Schulweiss says Elohim stands for the world as it is, subject to the laws of gravity, of physics, of cause and effect and God’s decision to give humans free will. Thus we live in a world of unpredictable calamities and random human suffering. Elohim is the world we hear about on the news with all its corruption, unfairness, evil and cruelty. On the other hand, Adonai gives us hope and calls us into acton to do mitzvot. Adonai gives us a vision of a compassionate society with the dream of peace and healing, second chances and forgiveness. Adonai also stands for what the world ought to be. Adonai inspires humans to overcome challenges by sending rescuers to aid victims of natural disasters and acts of terror, by giving to the poor, by visiting the sick, and by praying for courage and compassion for ourselves and our fellow humans. Elohim is about facts, while Adonai is about faith.
All of this reminds me of a lovely story from the Kabbalah (mystical teachings of Judaism). This story is a lovely metaphor for what happens when we do mitzvot and tikkun olam (repair of the world).
Here’s the story:
Before the world was created, God, who was infinite, occupied all the space in the universe. For God to create the world, God needed to contract, become smaller, in order to make room for God’s own creation. In the act of God contracting, divine sparks of light flew out and had to be contained in vessels. But the power from the divine sparks was too great to be contained and the vessels shattered and the divine sparks were released and flew in every direction. So whenever people do mitzvot, they are also helping to gather these divine sparks and create more order out of the chaos of daily living.
And there are so many mitzvot that we can choose to do. I would like to share with you a book which my friend, Laurie, gave to me. The book is “1,000 Mitzvahs” by Linda Cohen. I would like to read a small paragraph from the back cover: “When Linda Cohen’s father passed away, she decided to heal her soul and honor his memory by performing 1,000 acts of kindness or mitzvahs. What transpired was a 2 1/2 year journey during which time Cohen completed 1,000 simple acts that had profound and lasting implications. “1,000 mitzvahs” is a testament to the transformational power of kindness and a call to action for others to pay it forward–no matter how large or small the act.”
And so my wish for all of you in this remarkable congregation is that you do mitzvot however big or small and in so doing, help gather some of those divine sparks and bring about healing to our troubled world.
And may it be so…