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The Shma — Attention, Please

(This week’s Torah portion contains the Shma Yisrael and the paragraph that immediately follows, V’ahavta (“You shall love…). Following is a teaching about these passages that I originally offered during Yom Kippur, 5769/2008. Shabbat Shalom, JK)

Shma Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad. (Deuteronomy 6:4)

Shma Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad. Conventionally translated as “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One,” it is a declaration of the oneness, the unity of YHVH, the Source of All. Out of the literally thousands of verses in the Torah, our ancient sages chose to put this phrase at the center of our Jewish practice, and indeed that is where it has remained to this day. The framers of our tradition considered the Shma so important that it is marked in the Torah scroll with a special scribal flourish. In a scribal tradition more ancient than we know, the Torah text enlarges two letters in the Shma: the ayin in the word Shma, and the dalet at the end of the word echad. The entire phrase is framed by these two letters, writ large. Ayin and dalet spell “ed,” which means “witness.” Our sages want us to bear witness to the Oneness of God when we recite the Shma.

What does that mean? What does it mean to be a genuine witness of YHVH? I will return to this question later. First I would like to explore each of the key words in the Shma in depth, one at a time — for each word holds a world of meaning.

“Shma” is usually translated as “hear” or “listen.” It is also sometimes translated as “heed,” as in “to pay heed.” “Shma” does not mean merely hearing with the ears, but listening intently. I suggest we render “Shma” as “attend.” Attend means to be present to experience — as during attendance-taking, when we respond “present” after our name is called. “Attend” means paying attention, a full-bodied listening. Moses instructs us: Shma, attend to the world in such a way as to perceive the interconnectedness and interdependence of all. Listen not merely with your ears, but attend with all of your faculties, with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your might.

“Shma, Yisrael”: Attend, Israel. What does the name “Israel” have to teach us? It is not a random name, but one into which our tradition invests deep meaning. It is our spiritual name. As you may recall, our father Jacob, father of the twelve tribes from which we trace our descent, is returning home after twenty years in exile. He had run away after stealing his twin brother Esau’s blessing from their father Isaac. Esau threatened to kill Jacob, and Jacob fled to his uncle Laban in the old country. Jacob knows it is now time to return and to face his brother, but fears that Esau will still want to exact revenge. Jacob sends his family to safety, and spends the night alone on the riverbank. He is accosted by an unnamed man, and all night they wrestle, neither one the victor, neither one succumbing. As dawn breaks, the mysterious being bestows upon Jacob a new name, Israel, which means “God-wrestler.” The mysterious being says, “You have wrestled with God and with men, and you have not succumbed” (Genesis 32: 29). The being then vanishes. With the sun now shining down on him, Jacob crosses the river and limps up to his brother Esau, who awaits him with an unknown fate. Jacob, now Israel, is finished running away or acting with guile, and he approaches Esau openly and humbly. Esau embraces him and they weep.

We are the children of Israel. Our father Jacob merited this new name when he was finally ready to confront and wrestle with his fears and his less-than-perfect past. He was determined not to succumb, not to look away, not to dissemble once more. We, the children of Israel, inherit the spiritual mantle of being willing to wrestle with life and wrest meaning from our experience. We are engaged in a quest for wholeness, purpose, and meaning. We merit the name Israel when we do not avoid hard truths or passively accept injustice, but engage our lives in a full-bodied embrace. This attribute of God-wrestling may not make us the most relaxing or easy-going company, but nobody can say that we don’t care — and it is this caring that makes spiritual insight and growth possible.

The next phrase of the Shma brings us to the heart of the mystery of being, for it invokes the name of God, YHVH — the name that cannot be pronounced, the name that is not a name, the name that is a verb. Just as our name, Israel, points us toward a deeper understanding of ourselves, so the name YHVH is intended to point us toward an ever-deeper understanding of our very existence. Shma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu — Give your full attention, you who are engaged fully with reality: YHVH (“Adonai”) is our God.

The name Adonai, usually translated as “Lord,” is an ancient euphemism inserted into our prayers and sacred study because the most central name of God, YHVH, is not supposed to be pronounced. So, when we see the four Hebrew letters for YHVH in our text, we traditionally say aloud, “Adonai.” (Many Jews also regularly say “Hashem,” which simply means “the Name.”)

Some modern Biblical scholars sounded out “YHVH” and decided that Moses was a primitive tribal leader who introduced his clan to the worship of the mountain deity “Yahweh” (aka “Jehovah”). There may be some truth to this telling, but the fact that the hypothesis originated in the anti-Semitic work of 19th-century Christian scholars makes it suspect at best. Let us open ourselves to the possibility that Moshe rabeinu, Moses our teacher, as our tradition refers to him, was a great spiritual teacher who brought to his followers a profound insight, an insight that has also been expressed in other forms in other great wisdom traditions. Moses encoded the heart of this teaching in a name, four letters that cannot be pronounced, YHVH. The name is variously translated as “I am what I am,” “I will be what I will be” — or “Being” and “Becoming.”

At the burning bush, then, Moses heard the name with every fiber of his being, and the Name was . . . Being. Becoming. A verb.

Moses understood that the essential origin of life could not be contained in a noun, or in a graven image. It couldn’t be fixed. As soon as humans tried to fix it, whether in a graven image or in a single concept, the name of YHVH, and the connection to the Source, slipped out of their fingers. YHVH is as close as your next breath, and as infinite as the universe. To know YHVH, we must be willing to open ourselves to the full range of life: the love, the terror, the mystery, the grandeur, the heartbreak, the glory.

Moses encounters Life Itself, Life Unfolding. Moses seeks to liberate us with that awareness: Shma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad. Give your full attention, you who are engaged fully with reality: Life Unfolding is our God, and that Life Unfolding is One.

One. Not as in “one, not two”, but as in the One that encompasses the two, the One that encompasses the self and the other — the All, the All-Encompassing, the Infinite.

We live primarily in the awareness of duality, in a perception of our separateness from the world around us, and it is easy to forget how everyone and everything is related, stemming from a unitary source. Moses stands at the burning bush as the deeper, elusive nature of reality is revealed to him: all of Life Unfolding is truly One. When we do not acknowledge this reality, we become Pharaoh, hoarding life and manipulating others. The Moses that dwells in each of us returns from his epiphany and says to the Pharaoh in each of us: Life Unfolding has been revealed to me, now let my people go that they may serve not merely their own egos, but Life Unfolding.

The Shma is the clarion call of Jewish spiritual insight.

Our sages inserted a response to the Shma in the prayerbook, an amplification, a kind of “amen to that, sister!”: Baruch shem kvod malchuto l’olam vaed, often translated as, “Blessed is the glorious name and its sovereignty for ever and ever.” I love Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi’s rendering: “Through time and space, your glory shines, majestic One…” All year long we follow the custom of whispering this line in an undertone after proclaiming the Shma, and only on Yom Kippur do we sing it in full voice. I like to follow this custom because of my understanding of its origin: Our tradition imagines a celestial chorus of angels who sing “Baruch Shem Kvod” as an unending song. These angels know only one reality, they continually bask in the Oneness of Life Unfolding, and their existence is uncomplicated by the needs of the flesh or the challenge of free will. Here on earth, we humans, we God-wrestlers, grapple with the dark and the light. All year long we only whisper the angels’ refrain, an echo of their heavenly praise. But on Yom Kippur, the veil is lifted, and we humans temporarily join the heavenly choir. On this day, we give up our egos, our grasp on life, and for a day hand ourselves over: Life Unfolding, let us be vessels for your will.

Then we recite “V’ahavta,” “And You Shall Love”: And you shall love Life Unfolding-your-God with all of your heart, all of your soul, all of your being. This paragraph in the Torah immediately follows the Shma. As we know, love is the key to perceiving our interconnectedness. When we are in love, boundaries dissolve and unity is experienced. My favorite gematria is the numerical equivalence between the Hebrew word for “love,” “ahava,” and the Hebrew word for “Oneness,” “echad.” Love is the key to Moses’ revelation: At those graced moments when we love life fully, life unfolds fully before us and within us.

Moses our teacher then tells us what we must do in order to maintain the elevated awareness of the Shma: we must practice, constantly. We must place this teaching in our hearts. We must teach it to our children. We must contemplate the oneness of all when we sit in our homes and when we are out and about, when we lie down and when we rise up. We must place this awareness in our hands and between our eyes. We must inscribe this awareness on the doorposts of our homes and on our gates.

I asked earlier: what does it mean to be a genuine witness of YHVH, as our tradition calls us to be? Perhaps now we have a hint of an answer: When we act and love from the perspective of the interconnectedness of all, we are witnesses to the true nature of YHVH. And more: when we are unable to act as witnesses of our interconnectedness, when we feel too cut off and isolated from the rest of life, then our rabbis teach that at those moments God’s presence is hidden. There is no one to witness it at that moment. When any of us find ourselves trapped in that isolation, I pray that you feel the embrace of others and of the world itself cradling you, so that you may rise again to wrestle with life. May we all love and be loved. Let us train ourselves to be witnesses of the Divine presence, the interconnectedness of all.

Moses our teacher instructs us, Shma, Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad: Attend fully, you who are willing to wrestle with life and not succumb, Life Unfolding is our God, and Life Unfolding is One.

Let us each in our own fashion allow boundaries to dissolve, and join the Heavenly chorus, immersed in the infinite glory of All That Is.