Rabbinic Reflections: Issue 170

July 28, 2023 (10 Av 5783)

Parasha VaEtchanan
The Not So Simple “Hear (?) Oh Israel”

Dear Friends,

I hope this correspondence finds you doing well and in good health, enjoying the change of pace of a relaxing and rejuvenating summer schedule. Please join us this upcoming Saturday morning for our in-person Shabbat services, which will take place in the sanctuary and be available on our regular Zoom prayer link.

We would like to thank Andrea Zweig Wagner for sponsoring the Kiddush this Shabbat morning. Since formally joining our shul, Andrea has been a great gift to our community. She has regularly participated in Shabbat services, joined in adult education programming, and frequently & melodiously chanted the Haftarah and Torah on our behalf. We wish her health and happiness as she relocates to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and we eagerly look forward to welcoming her back with open arms when she can next visit.

As many of you know, I like to quote a colleague’s phrase, “This week we have an amazing Parasha!” Certainly, this Shabbat, which places us in the early chapters of Deuteronomy, offers any reader at least two well-known, scriptural highlights including our proclamation of faith (the Shema & V’Ahavta), and Moshe’s restating of the Ten Commandments (lifted from the Book of Exodus, chapter twenty).

In last year’s column on Parashat Vaetchanan, I focused primarily on the Ten Commandments, so to mix things up, allow me to share a few thoughts regarding the famous, yet not so simple directive, the Shema.

Here are a few fun facts, followed be a detailed explanation of the true (?) meaning of the famous, historical Jewish one-liner:

First, according to the Talmud, the first paragraph of the Shema contains 42 words, which are meant to remind the Kohanim, in particular, of a mystical 42-letter name of Adonai that was clandestinely passed down through the priestly generations and incantated solely by them in the Holy Temple of Jerusalem.

Second, the entire three-paragraph liturgical text of the Shema contains 248 words to remind us of the original founder of monotheism, Avraham Avinu or Abraham our Father. In Gematria, the letters of the name of Avraham also adds up to 248 (א=1, ב=2, ר=200, ה=5, and מ=40). Therefore, each time we say the Shema, we are remembering our historical connection to the founder of our faith and Hashem’s original covenant with us as Avraham’s chosen people and holy descendants.

Next, in the ancient world, the human body was considered to be comprised of a total of 248 bones. Also, there are 248 positive (to-do) mitzvoth in the Torah. Therefore, combining these ideas, each time we recite the Shema and think about loving God with all our hearts, with all our might, and all our strength, we realize that such dedication and performance of our positive Jewish religious obligations, both personal and communal, need to be performed through every aspect of our personal and physical being.

In the Torah scroll, the sofer (scribe) writes both the last letter of the word Shema (ע), as well as the last letter of the word Echad (ד) in a boldfaced font. Placed together, these two highlighted letters spell the Hebrew word עד , meaning, to witness. Such textual embellishment teaches that each time a Jew recites the Shema, it serves to the world as verbal testimony and judicial witnessing regarding the oneness of Hashem.

According to the Midrash (Dev. Rabbah 2:35), the composers of the text were actually the sons of Yaakov Avinu, Jacob our Forefather. As Yaakov lies on his deathbed in Egypt, at the age of 147, he reflects on the future path of his diaspora-based sons and grandchildren. Now, entrenched residents of a foreign land, will they seamlessly assimilate within a pantheon of Pagan culture? To assure their failing father that they will remain steadfast in their Judaism throughout the generations, the children promise their fealty to monotheism. Together they proclaim, “Shema Yisrael (Listen to us, Jacob our father), Adonai Eloheinu (Adonai will remain our God), Adonai Echad (Unlike our Egyptian counterparts, we know that Hashem is uniquely Divine).” In his next and final breath, Yaakov expires in peace, replying to the boys, “Baruch Shem K’vod Malchuto L’Olam Va’ed (Blessed is the name of His glorious kingdom forever and ever).”

And finally, the action word the Torah employs requiring our faith comes from the verb lishmo’a (שמע - to hear): Shema Yisrael.

This verb, lishmo’a, is a key term or leitmotif of the book of Deuteronomy. In Devarim, lishmo’a appears in one or other forms, some ninety-two times. In a methodology referred to as gezeria shaveh, biblical literary analysis delves into the meaning of any word by investigating its use in other contexts of sacred texts. Such a survey of intratextuality suggests that lishmo’a conveys a plethora of meanings clustered around five primary ideas: to pay focused attention (Dev. 27:9); to hear (Gen 3:10); to understand (Gen. 11:7); to internalize/take to heart (Gen. 17:10); and, perhaps most importantly, to respond in action (Gen. 16:2).

Additionally, in Rabbinic Hebrew, it has other meanings such as: to infer; to accept; to take into account as evidence; and to receive as part of the oral tradition. Nowadays, psychotherapists sometimes speak of “active listening.” This is also part of what is meant by the word Shema.

Therefore, according to Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sachs, of blessed memory, Shema Yisrael does not simply mean, as we teach our youngsters, “Hear, O Israel.” Rather, it means something like, “Listen. Concentrate. Give the word of God your most focused attention. Strive to understand. Engage all your faculties, intellectual and emotional. Make His will your own, for what He commands you to do is not irrational or arbitrary, but for your welfare, the welfare of your people, and ultimately for the benefit of all humanity.” Now, try saying that quickly with your hands covering your eyes!

Friends, as we enter into Shabbat, may the words of the Shema inspire us to learn, to listen, to understand, to act, and to accept all the holy aspects of Hashem’s creation and the gifts of community and Jewish heritage.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Eric L. Wasser, EdD, Hon.DM
Tel: 201-562-5277

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