Shabbat Parshat Va’etchanan 5777
Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5773
About a month ago I was visiting a congregant in Centre State Hospital. He was in the cardiac critical care unit. After spending some time I sat outside the room waiting for the nurse when I was approached by a woman who turned out to be the hospital chaplain. She came over with the following request. There was a family in the next room whose husband/father had just had an aneurysm. He was not going to recover but not yet clinically brain-dead and they had decided to pull the plug. And they were looking for a rabbi to do deathbed prayers. Would I mind doing that with them, as they would prefer a rabbi to a Christian chaplain?
After navigating the “he’s not brain-dead and this is murder issue” I did go to do vidui for this man. When speaking to the family I came to learn that they had no religious affiliation. They had no rabbi. They had no real connection to Judaism. Yet when I asked them to recite the Shema with me, they all joined in without skipping a beat.
When thinking about it – it really struck me; this family with literally no connection to speak of to Judaism knew the Shema. It rolled off their tongue.
You wonder – what is the secret and meaning of Shema?
I would argue that there are two components to Shema.
- If you look at the medieval commentaries to the first verse of Shema you will find that most of the focus is on (דברים פרק ו) ד) יקוק אלהינו יקוק אחד. They try and explain how we can have Hashem and Elokeinu, different attributes that are indeed one. They discuss the unity of God and its metaphysical significance and meaning. They look at Shema, and correctly so, as an expression of the nature of God, a philosophical commentary on the Almighty.
- They do not however really focus on , שמע ישראל which is not a traditional formulation in the Torah – usually we have daber el bnai yisrael… what is the element of Shema Yisrael? I think that it is the simple and profound declaration that we believe in God and see God’s hand in our lives. Shema here means really listen, internalize, and get it. I want to try and explore that idea for a moment.
Although the Shema is first recorded in the Torah in this morning’s parsha according to the Midrash this is not the first time that is appears. They play on שמע ישראל and as being a reference to Jacob, who is also known as Yisrael. The Midrash records the recitation of Shema twice in Yaakov’s life.
Yaakov’s immediate reaction when he learns that his beloved son Joseph is still alive is to recite the Shema.
The second occurs when Yaakov is blessing his children at the end of his life and is recorded in the Midrash to our parsha. (Midrash Aggadah Buber 6th chapter). It relates that Yaakov intended to reveal the secret of the end of days to his children but his ruach hakodesh (divine spirit) was taken from him, preventing him from divulging the secret. Yaakov was concerned that maybe there was something wrong with one of his kids and that was why God prevented him from sharing this secret with his children. After all, Avraham had a son who went off the derech and so did Yitzchak, maybe he did as well. He expressed this concern to his kids and their response was שמע ישראל, hear Israel, our father that יקוק אלהינו יקוק אחד. We all believe in Hashem!
Neither of these episodes have anything to do with metaphysical beliefs or philosophy. When Yaakov learns that Joseph is alive his proclamation of Shema is an exclamation of God’s involvement in his life. Only God could have made this happen!
When his children recite the shema, it is not to tell Yaakov that they understand that unity of God; rather that they are acting and behaving properly, living Godly lives, unlike Ishmael and Esav.
In this sense Shema is not only a belief in God but an awareness of God that affects the way that we live our lives.
That message can also be learned from the context in which Shema is found. The chapter immediately preceding Shema is the giving of the 10 commandments, the only time that the entire people had direct communication with God. And the section immediately following Shema is the command not to forget God as we go about living our lives.
And the paragraph itself speaks of teaching torah to our children, and affixing a mezuzah to our doorposts which is meant to be a constant reminder of God, every time we walk into our house.
In thinking about that family in the CCU, in addition to their loss, it is also truly tragic that their only encounter with God is death related and not life related. They remembered the Shema but not its message.