Sermon: Shabbat Va’Etchanan

Written by Rabbi Colin Eimer — 7 August 2017

The film we watched in the June meeting of the Alyth Film Club was called ‘Forbidden.’ Not, as the title might suggest, some blue movie, but a drama based on the true story of a German countess, not Jewish, who had been involved, via the Swedish Church in Berlin, with smuggling Jews out of Germany in the 1930s. At the beginning of the war, she meets a Jewish journalist and they fall in love. For some 3 years she hides him in her apartment where he manages to avoid detection. When the Russians capture Berlin he emerges from hiding, but they think he is a Nazi and line him up to shoot him. Standing there, waiting to be shot, he says the first line of the Shema, over and over, louder and louder. The Russian officer about to shoot him, is also Jewish, hears the Shema, says shalom aleichem and he’s saved. That was probably dramatic licence but it fits in well with the Hollywood perception of the Shema as the prayer that Jews say as they’re dying.

But more seriously, many midrashim depict rabbis saying the Shema in their dying breath as they’re being tortured by the Romans. “All my life,” says Rabbi Akiva as he is dying, “I wondered what the Shema meant when it says, you shall love the Eternal your God b’chol nafsh’cha with all your soul? Now, finally, I know.” And he dies. (Berachot 61b)

The Shema comes from this Shabbat’s Torah reading. (Deuteronomy 6:4-9) Popular books on Judaism describe the Shema as the ‘watchword of our faith’ or ‘Israel’s declaration of faith.’ Many Progressive communities have bneimitzvah recite the Shema at the moment when they read their Bar/Batmitzvah prayer. Yet, as we know, the Shema is not the central prayer of our liturgy – that’s the Amidah – and given that it’s just a few verses from the Torah, it doesn’t exactly fit the definition of a ‘prayer,’ however we might define ‘prayer.’ In Alyth it’s said sitting, but I suspect that 15 or 20 years ago you would have stood up to say it – on the basis that if it is to be considered as ‘the watchword of our faith,’ we should acknowledge its place and importance by standing to say it.

For the Shema can be seen as a sort of encapsulation in 6 verses of what Judaism is about. From the statement in the first line about the nature of God, it moves into loving God with all our being, and then translating that into action. It is to be transmitted to the next generation; we are to be mindful of these words wherever we are and twice a day. To really hammer the point home, we are to nail these words on our doorpost – that crossing point between private and public domain – on the slant pointing in both directions. It does, indeed, seem to be a shorthand expression of the basic principles of Judaism.

And from v’ahavta onwards it all seems pretty straightforward. The ‘problem’ with the Shema is that first line – just what does it mean? Familiarity might not always breed contempt but it might well breed complacency: we know the words, they trip easily off our tongue, and we have a sense – vague or otherwise – of what they’re saying.

Just six words and yet some of the hardest in the Torah to understand. The number of translations alone gives us a clue. “The Lord our God, the Lord is One” (JPSA 1917) “the Lord is our God, the Lord Alone” (JPSA 1962) “God our God is God, the only One” (Samson Raphael Hirsch 1860) “Listen Israel our God is One” (Sudbury Valley Siddur 1980) “HaShem is our God, Hashem the One (and Only)” (Artscroll 1980s) There’s a general principle when dealing with translations, namely: the more variant translations there are, the greater the ambiguity in the meaning of the words being translated. There is, for example, quite a significant difference between saying “the Lord is One”, “the Lord Alone” and “the Only one.” We have a rough idea of what they mean but this is a place where we might want a bit more preciseness than a ‘rough idea.’

For just what do we mean when we say something is ‘one’ and in particular when we say that ‘God is One’? It could mean ‘undivided’ – one, rather than two, three or four. This reading desk is one – and yet there are different parts to it. Or maybe it’s one in the sense of ‘unique’ – there’s only one North-Western Reform Synagogue. This synagogue is one, and yet there are different parts to it: as a building, a collection of members, a praying community, a learning one. There’s obviously overlap but there are some who come to learn, for example, who might never come to a service.

So maybe Adonai echad means ‘God is One’ in the sense of one, not two or more? But suppose there was somebody who believed in five gods, idols. A friend then comes along and convinces them that gods 1-4 are false. The person now believes only in Number 5, the ‘one God.’ But it’s the same god they believed in when they believed in numbers 1 to 4 also. Do they now believe in God, then, in the sense of the Shema? Or are they still an idolater, but simply an idolater who believes in one, rather than several gods?

Or perhaps ‘one’ means ‘indivisible’? Many Jews have trouble getting their heads around the idea of the Trinity. For them, 1+1+1 makes 3 not 1. So God is One – One and indivisible – a unity and not, by implication, a trinity. But even if we say God is one, it still begs the question – ‘one what?

Maybe it’s easier to seek out the implications of saying ‘God is one’ than trying to define exactly what that ‘Oneness’ consists of? Saying God is one implies that there is a Unity principle underlying all of human creation. In part, at least, the environmental crisis of the past 50+ years is the result of ignoring that principle. More than ever before, we see how something we do here can have a devastating effect somewhere else. There is an overall unity: things are in balance. When we lose sight of the inter-connectedness of everything, we suffer the disastrous effects. And that Unity principle applies also in human relations. It says that beyond all the external differences – of wealth, colour, race, religion, learning and so on – there is something that binds all human beings together and when that is forgotten or ignored, human beings are able to do the most-appalling things to each other.

But whatever difficulty we may have with understanding this first line of the Shema is only compounded when we look at the Alenu, at the end of the service. It closes with a verse from the prophet Zechariah, on that day the Eternal shall be One and known as One (Zechariah 14:9) So which is it? God is One, as in the Shema; or God will be One, as in the Alenu?

And yet…. maybe a prayer like the Alenu, speaking of such a world, of a better world, where ‘all who inhabit this world shall meet in understanding’ can only be couched in the future tense? How can we affirm that it is a present reality when we look around us in the world?

Perhaps all we can say is that God is not One in the sense that there is not yet sufficient unity of purpose among human beings to make the world a better place. But God is also not One in that other sense of oneness – single and not several. We still worship many idols – power, money, status, political and religious ideology. In our Torah reading, Moses says to the people, “I stood between you and God” (Deuteronomy 5:5.) One commentary picks up on that “I stood,” suggesting that the problem is the “I,” the ego, our ego, which stands between us and God.

Between that first line of the Shema and the last one of the Alenu is a gap, a contradiction, a sort of mystery. Leo Baeck suggests that what arises out of religious mystery is commandment, a path to follow. It is in the living out of the contradiction that we find its harmonisation. We live in a world of diversity. How do we find order and unity except by trying to emulate God’s unity? How do we accept the reality and legitimacy of diversity without lapsing into what has been called the “vulgar pluralism of ‘anything goes.’” How do we find unity without uniformity.

Many Jewish philosophers suggest that the meaning of the unity of God is impenetrable to us. Whatever meaning we ascribe to it will always be far short of the truth. As the mystics put it, perhaps all we can know about God is, as it were, just a few threads on the hem of God’s robe.

Perhaps also that is why the first line of the Shema does not say “know” but “hear.” Shema means more than just ‘listen to these words,’ something akin to the American phrase ‘listen up,’ ‘pay attention.’

I continue to struggle with just what these six words mean and have to be content to live with that unity principle, reminding me that, in the midst of the wonderful and amazing diversity of human creation, and beyond all that diversity, there is something that binds us all together that connects us all, that we affirm every time we say those six words, shema yisrael….