Rabbi Abi Weber | Special to WJW
This week’s Torah portion is Va’etchanan: Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11.
Every evening for the last 19 months, my wife and I have completed the same ritual. First, there is the poem: a simple bedtime story that we recite responsively. Then, the song: a familiar and soothing lullaby taken from summer camp.
Finally, the climactic moment: We stand above our baby daughter’s crib and ask, “Are you ready to say the Shema?” A smile breaks out on her small face as she brings her hand to her eyes and burbles along.
The Shema is, perhaps, the most iconic piece of liturgy in the Jewish canon. So essential is this ritual to our people that the Mishnah, the first compendium of rabbinic law, begins with the question, “From what time do we recite Shema in the evening?”
And this centrality has lasted through the generations. A story is told of Rabbi Yitzchak Halevi Herzog, later the Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel. After the Second World War, he set out on a mission to locate the thousands of Jewish children who had been hidden in monasteries and Christian homes during the war. Walking into one such monastery in 1946, Herzog turned to the Reverend Mother to thank her for rescuing so many young people. “Of course,” the nun replied, “but how will you know which children are Jewish? There are so many children here, and some of them came as infants.”
Herzog was undeterred. He gathered all of the children together in a large hall and cried out, “Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad!” Dozens of children instinctively lifted their hands to their eyes, then began to weep and ask for their parents. The ancient words of the Shema opened in them the floodgates of memory.
This unbroken chain of memory begins in this week’s parshah, shortly after Moshe begins his recounting of the Israelites’ time in the desert. In Moshe’s retelling, God speaks directly to the Israelites on Mount Sinai, adjuring them to follow the Ten Commandments.
Overwhelmed by God’s thunderous voice, though, the people beg for Moshe to stand as an intermediary between them and the Divine. Moshe steps in, and among the first words that he transmits from God to the people are those of the Shema. Hear, Israel: Adonai is our God. Adonai is one. Listen, people. God is One. God is our One.
God’s transmission to Moshe includes instructions on how we are to continue this transmission for generations to come: Teach these words to your children. Speak them when you are at home and when you travel, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them to your body. Write them on your doorposts. Make them your six-word mantra.
Often, when I get into conversations with non-Jews about Judaism, they ask me about my “faith.” This word always catches me off guard. I rarely think of Judaism as a “faith.” Judaism, for me, is a practice. It is making intentional decisions every time I eat. It is building a mindful and electronics-free space every Shabbat. It is living in the rhythms of the Jewish calendar, from one holiday to the next. It is being in community with fellow Jews, all of us creating a deliberate alternative to default everyday living in the United States. Judaism is a way of being in the world.
The Shema is clearly a statement of faith. And yet it is through its practice — its ritualized transmission from generation to generation — that the mantra gains its power. When we consciously attend to the oneness and unity of the Divine, we create unity across time and space.
Rabbi Abi Weber is the assistant rabbi at Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel (BZBI) in Center City Philadelphia.