Parshat Veetchanan 5777
Rabbi Steinhardt's Sermons

Parshat Veetchanan 5777

Shabbat Shalom

“Abba!” I can still hear the call. “You forgot to sing me the Shema.” I wondered if it was a ploy. It was a way to get me back in the room, stay up a few more minutes… I may have just finished some fantastical tale of travel or read some tired old children’s story. But, I left the room and forgot to sing the Shema.
And so, I would dutifully return to the bedroom and sing the Shema to my child.

It was our lullaby… right there with “this little light of mine.” I don’t know if my kids realized that the little light of mine was them. But I know that the Shema connected them to something deep inside of me. Something connected to identity. Something coming from emunah, faith and belief. It connected to my own parents and grandparents. It connected me to generations; those no longer with us. It connected us to Rabbi Akiva and to no one less than Moshe Rabbeinu, the Moses of our Torah. We know it was said thousands of years ago in the Temple. And the singing would be an expression of love for God… and an expression of love for them. I wanted them to be and to feel protected. Shema Yisrael Adonai Ehloheinu Adonai Echad.

For the words are the words of eternity, it is an expression of that which unites and connects all being. It goes back to Creation. So they certainly connected me to my kids. But more, perhaps subconsciously, me and my kids to the universe and its One God.

And then. Vaahafta, words of love and words of obligation.

Can we look closely, together at the Shema this morning?
I think we have already started.

It is the central expression of faith. God is one.

And with a “oneness” to God there is the possibility of peace. Because many gods compete for power. One God, is all powerful. But it’s not the language of power that I’m attracted to. It’s the language of Oneness as unity and peace.

Adonoi Echad.

And I know something… and one day I wanted my kids to know this also. But I didn’t want them to know this until they were older; until they connected to the words and the melody… and knew they came from love. And that is that these will be the last words on my lips as they were on the lips of every old and dying Jew. We conclude the vidui on the deathbed with these words:

Shema Yisrael adonoi Ehloheinu Adonoi Echad. And as we hope, as our bodies will return to the earth, our souls and spirits will return to our ancestors and… to our God. They were too young to know that. But today they know that I, their Abba, say these words with all whom I accompany at the end of life. And yes, I was privileged to recite these words with my Mom a year ago as she passed from this world…

Before that, when she remembered very little, I would sometimes sing to her. I would sing words from old songs, and words from our prayers. I remember towards the end of her life, singing the Shema and she mouthed quietly: I remember that one!

I couldn’t tell my kids when they were young, but wanted them to learn at the right time, perhaps they stood at that place in Israel, in Caesaria, where the great Rabbis living under Roman rule, who refused to give up the study of Torah and a life of Torah, but were willing to accept torture, to be tortured to death rather than give up teaching and learning. Their lives were about something bigger than themselves, transcendent and eternal… And Rabbi Akiva, the great sage and teacher of Torah was lead to the executioner. It was time for the Shema. Legend, or who knows, perhaps it is history that tells us in a narrative passed from generation to generation, the Roman executioner with iron combs scraped away the skin of Akiva as he recited out loud, Shema Yisrael, freely accepting the yoke of God’s kingship… And his disciples forced to watch, asked him, perhaps pleaded with him, “Even Now Rabbi?” And he replied to them:

“All my life I was troubled by the verse: Love your God with all your heart and with all your soul. Now I know, it means, even if your life is taken. And I wondered if I would ever be able to fulfill that mitzvah, that obligation. Now I know, I can. And we learn that Akiva left the world uttering
Adonoi Echad… the Lord is One.”

This week we read these words. And these words we recite twice daily. And in those times… The Shema in shachrit and the shema in Maariv we close our eyes and focus on each word.

Rambam tells us that we should say each word separately… not allow them to flow together so we can focus on the meaning of the individual word. Too often we allow it to become routine. But these are the central words of faith. And in what appears to be simplicity there are great reminders and great meaning…

First of all, we note, this is not a prayer to God. This an acclamation we make to each other. We, a people covenanted with God; that is our essential bond. And anyone can join.

Shema… Listen Israel. Pay attention, every Jew sitting around this room.

First, we need to listen. We need to hear each other. Before we do or respond, we need to listen.

Maybe because Jews talk so much we particularly need a central prayer to remind us… LISTEN/HEAR
Yisrael… you who struggle with Eil… with God. That’s Yisrael. The one who struggled with God. We continue to struggle. It’s ok to struggle, that’s how we grow and learn.

Rabbi Pinchas ben Chama taught that the first time we said the shema we were standing at Sinai. And it was meant to be an affirmation of our partnership… Partnership with each other, fellow strugglers and partnership with God.

Adonoi Ehloheinu… this same rabbi said: God is our Lord… that is to say, God is our source, the source of life.

But Rashi takes it further. He says that when we say” Adonoi Ehloheinu” the adonoi is our Lord we are saying that Adonoi is not only our Lord, Adonoi is the Lord of ALL. You see in the Torah Elohim is used for other gods too. And Rashi is saying that the prayer is an affirmation of a hope that a time will come when all humanity, created by One God will can come together as One… in peace. That’s a pretty universal notion.

Adonoi Ehloheinu… God is our Lord. This is the Lord who created heaven and earth… Breshith Bara Ehlohim. He created all life, the whole universe, all being. Ehlohim is the source of all creation. This adonoi at Sinai is also the ehlohim in creation.

Years ago, I served a congregation which was the only synagogue in the small city of Warren Ohio, which could not sustain Reform, Conservative and Orthodox congregations. And so, we were eclectic, and we learned to make compromises. We used the Reform siddur, Gates of Prayer on Friday night and the old Conservative, Silverman siddurim on Shabbat morning.

I remember this meditation or reading that was in the Gates of Prayer:
Eternal God, we face tomorrow with hope, made stronger by the vision of your kingdom, a world where poverty and war are banished, where injustice and hate are gone. Teach us to share the pain of others to heed your call for justice and to pursue peace… That’ll bring us close to the day when you are One and all the world will be one.

As God is One, and all is God, We aspire to be one!

And that’s not simply a manifestation of twentieth-century liberal ideas.

Maimonides, in the 12th century wrote that the Shema is intended to reflect the unity of all that exists and all that will exist. That is the meaning of One God. Our Lord is the Lord of all humanity.

Adonoi Ehloheinu Adonoi Echad.

David Hartman sees these words as an expression of love. Because at the moment of their first recitation the marriage between the people at Sinai and God began. He sees these words as words of commitment. These are the words of covenant… of commitment… like at a marriage ceremony. The husband gives a ring to his wife, and in our tradition, the wife gives a ring to her husband… And he will say:
Harei at mekudeshet li b’tabaat zo, k’dat Moshe VYisrael

Behold you are mekudeshet li.

You are made holy to me, sanctified to me which implies a uniqueness in the relationship, and a commitment to each other, to fidelity… And that is what these words meant at Sinai.
And that is why they are followed by:
VaAhafta et Adonoi ehlohecha… You shall the Lord your God… with your heart, your soul and all of your might… Its feeling and believing and doing.

Finally, each recitation should be seen as giving witness to this one God, the God of all creation and all humanity, all people, and so we inherently express a hope for a different day when human beings, however they wordship will come together as one… This is part of the essential beauty of this tradition of ours. It is particular but it is also universal…

And so… not just in meaning but in form the shema has meaning.
It is written in the Torah and in our siddurim… has a big Eyin at the end of Shema… And a big dalet at the end of Echad
And eyin dalet spell eid; witness… We’re giving witness.
Witness to the love of God… and the love of each other, the love of humanity.

And so, each time, when I heard the words… Abba, you forgot to say the shema… I would return. Because it was like saying I love you… I love you in the deepest way possible. Through that which is Divine. And a parent should never forget to say that!

Shabbat Shalom