This week, we arrive at the wonder and awe of the Shma

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Jews like to emphasize that our religion is one based on deed rather than creed, and that is, by and large, a true statement. There are 613 mitzvahs in the Torah, and these commandments are our biblical mandate to be a religious people based on our actions.

Rabbi Daniel Feder

When people share with me, often with sheepishness, that they do not believe in God, I often share with them what a wise rabbi taught me when I was an assistant rabbi: As an organized people of faith, we Jews believe in God, but that there is now, and has always been, room for Jews under our tent who do not believe in God. We are a diverse people of faith.

As we begin our Torah with Parashat Bereshit just after Simchat Torah, I always marvel to myself that the Torah begins with the creation of the world, rather than an introduction of who God is and an explication of what God does. One could surmise that either it is just assumed that the reader of the Torah already knows all about God and believes in God or that the primary purpose of the Torah is not as much to instill faith as to gain insight into the faith system of the Jews.

It may be surprising to the student of Torah that the quintessential expression of Jewish faith does not appear until the fifth book of the Torah, in this week’s parshah. Va’etchanan may not be the most well-known parshah, but it contains the six-word expression of Jewish theology that is the watchword of our faith, the Sh’ma (Deuteronomy 6:4). These six words, “Sh’ma Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad” (Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one) are the most recognizable words in all of Jewish liturgy.

Jewish interpreters note that the meaning of the Sh’ma, surprisingly, is not at all clear. The text can be understood to mean any of the following, because there are no commas or periods in the biblical text:

Adonai is our God, and Adonai alone.

Adonai is our God, one indivisible Adonai.

Adonai is our God and Adonai is unique.

Despite the fact that the correct phrasing is not clear, the essence is beyond question — there is a oneness to our belief in God, and that notion has become central to Jewish thinking and liturgy. It is recited by traditional Jews daily at evening and morning services, before going to sleep, and at the end of Yom Kippur, and we affix these words to our doorposts and inscribe them on phylacteries. The powerful story is told of the death of Rabbi Akiva, who proclaimed the words of the Sh’ma even was he was martyred.

Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut, editor of “The Torah: A Modern Commentary,” explains that “the uniqueness of the Eternal became an article of faith” and that Adonai was Israel’s personal guardian. “In repeating the Sh’ma, Jews directed themselves to this special relationship, they gloried in it, and pledged their very lives to witness the Holy One.”

In this way, Rabbi Plaut continues, “The Sh’ma thus came to be like a precious gem, in that the light of faith made its words sparkle with rich brilliance of varied colors … These principles were seen by generations of Jews as rays shining forth from the Sh’ma, as from a diamond set into a crown of faith and proven true and enduring in human history.”

The role of the Sh’ma in our people’s history is profound, but to me, its real power is felt in our times, in our own lives. Long before I was a rabbi, as a young camper at a secular summer camp in Yosemite, I remember wanting to affirm my Jewish faith in some special way. What welled up inside of me was the Sh’ma. And now, as a parent, it is what my youngest daughter and I sing every night before she goes to sleep.

The Sh’ma connects us to God, to be sure, but it also has the power to connect us to our Yiddishkeit, our Jewish feelings and to those we love. It is an articulation of faith, but at its best, it propels us into the very Jewish actions that display our faith.

 

Rabbi Daniel Feder is the spiritual leader at Reform Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame. He can be reached at [email protected].