Sermon for 7th Day Pesach – Ein od mi’lvado

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 17 April 2017

If you were to happen across the lost wallet of an ultra-Orthodox Jew, you might find inside it a card containing a phrase from our second scroll this morning:  The words “Ein od mi’lvado” – from the sentence “ki Adonai hu ha-elohim, ein od milvado” – “Adonai is God, there is no other” (Deuteronomy 4: 35).  You may see it also on car bumper stickers in Jerusalem or Brooklyn, or occasionally on a kippah.

So I thought this morning we might spend a few minutes thinking about what it means, this phrase that really matters to many people; a phrase that is extremely rich; that can be understood in very different ways – a phrase our relationship with which reveals a great deal about how we understand our religious lives.

Let’s start with why it is in the wallet, or on the back of a car.  Ein od mi’lvado is what is known in some Kabbalistic circles as a segulah – a remedy, or protection – a benevolent charm.  There are other segulot with which you are more familiar – the trend for wearing a red string cut from a longer string that has been wound around Rachel’s tomb, for example.  The idea is that the phrase has some kind of protective power, shielding the person with it from danger.
The source of this idea is actually Talmudic.  A story in which Rabbi Chanina beats off an attempted curse from a sorceress with those words.  Though it is important to note that his statement is theological rather than magical – he does not suggest they have special protective power, rather that only God exists who has the power to determine what will happen to him, so the sorceress can try her worst (because “ein od mi’lvado”).

But – in an example of the worst of kabbalistic tradition, rooted in magical spells and evil spirits – the words themselves come to have magical power for those who concentrate on them.  So, having ein od mi’lvado on your car or in your wallet is there to mark out your special protected status, a manifestation of God as a protective force field.

It’s worth saying that there is another, even more unsavoury, reason for the ein od mi’lvado car bumper sticker.  It is a statement of Jewish power – an outward expression of uniqueness, of having the only True route to God. Our God is the only God, not yours, it says to the outside world.

If we, and I think we probably do, choose to reject these understandings – choose to reject religion as superstitious force, or religion as about there being one True path (and we have it) – how else might we read it?

From an intellectual, academic, perspective, we might read it for what it says about the development of our ancestors’ religious self-understanding.  We are inheritors of a complex textual tradition that developed over time, and in which we can see multiple ideas and voices.  I’ve spoken a little about this on seventh day Pesach before, but it bears repeating.  There is an amazing journey that happened between our two scrolls this morning – the journey from what the 19th century scholar Julius Wellhausen termed monolatrism to monotheism.  The Song of the Sea – probably dating to the 12th Century BCE – assumes the existence of multiple Gods, but states that we should worship only one of them, only one of them is truly powerful (by the way, the Ten Commandments probably assumes that, too).  By Deuteronomy, probably 500 hundred years later, Ein od milvado – our ancestors are monotheists – there is only one God, no other.

It is a source of wonder to me every year that we read these two scrolls next to one another, just as the presence of both mi chamocha and the aleinu in our liturgy should cause us delight each time we pray.  Ours is an amazing tradition that holds within it its textual development in this way; that holds within it that diversity of voice across generations.  Ein od mi’lvado is a milestone in that development, and a testament to the poly-vocal nature of our tradition.

And, as a phrase it’s richness grows – because, theologically, we continue to evolve as a people, rich in different and new ideas about God and the world.  As understood by kabbalists over the last five hundred years, the phrase ein od mi’lvado contains within it a rejection of dualism – a rejection of the idea that God sits out there and we are here.  The phrase may often be translated “There is no other”, but it can also be read “There is nothing else” – that is, everything is God.  This is expressed most succinctly in the Kabbalistic work Tikkunei Zohar – “lei atar panui minei” – there is no place empty of the divine.  As Moshe Cordovero, a rabbi in the kabbalistic community of 16th Century Safed put it: “The essence of divinity is found in every single thing, nothing but it exists.”

Read this way, ein od mi’lvado is also expressive of an ideal – that we should behave as if everything, everyone is divine.  Everything, everyone, is interconnected.  And the implication is that everything matters – how we treat one another, and the world, needs to be thoughtful, for everything is sacred. Having seen the very worst of kabbalistic tradition, this is kabbalah at its best – helping us to think in a different way about how we read the text and its implications for our lives.  It provides, in fact, a corrective against the idea that life is a zero sum game, that the other is the enemy, that the world is a resource, that we have a single route to Truth.

As we turn to our second scroll, we can hear its words in greatly differing ways depending on how we understand religious life: as superstition, as a magical power on our side, perhaps; or, more likely, as a source of inspiring study as we engage with the intellectual journey of our ancestors.  Most importantly, though, it can inspire us in new ways about our place in the world, and how we behave in our lives.
Ein od mi’lvado – there is nothing else.