Beyond Rote: Shema Pathos Often Taken for Granted

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By Rabbi Eric Yanoff

Parshat Va’etchanan

Although I can certainly recall the moments in my Jewish experience that made my soul soar with inspiration and kavanah, I am also, at times, a yekke: I love the constancy of prayer — the keva, the fixed, rote repetition that embeds certain words into our kishkes.

And perhaps no other words in all of the Torah or in all of Jewish liturgy have that consistent, familiar, emotional tug than the six words of the Shema, which can be found in this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Va’etchanan.

These words — originally spoken by Moses in the narrative, as part of his extended charge to the people of Israel — are said in traditional practice twice daily, as we are instructed, “when you lie down and when you rise up.” But there is a danger in this constancy, this rote practice: Might we lose the deeper context of these words? Indeed, we mustn’t forget the countless stories of these words being the last to escape the lips of a dying martyr, going back even before the time of Rabbi Akiva, and through to modern times.

Again, in our constant repetition of the Shema, we risk forgetting the contexts in which these words were said — and not only as last words, but as introductory, attention-grabbing words. Imagine the pathos of the first time in our biblical tradition that these words were said: Moses stands, alone, before some 2 million people (600,000 males of military age — do the math, adding in the women, children and elderly).

He is alone, because his brother, Aaron, has died. Aaron had always been the spokesperson, the announcer of the divine word to the people of Israel. In the earliest moments of his leadership, Moses had pleaded with God: “Whatever You do, don’t make me speak publicly.” Famously, Moses has a speech impediment.

And now, bereft of both his brother, Aaron, and his sister, Miriam, Moses stands alone — in the full knowledge and publicly — witnessed pain that he, too, will soon die, before he can realize the legacy of homecoming that he has promised to his flock.

And because he is alone, he must do the one thing he fears most, the only part of leadership he never accepted: He must speak, despite his challenges with speech. God has asked so much of Moses — but now this, too?! Must he publicly air his vulnerability, at the moment he speaks of his own mortality?

The moment is heartbreaking.

But wait — the pathos is even more fraught: Moses uses a word that is, really, a plea: Please hear me, Israel. And with his speech impediment, he begins to vocalize with a sound that many speech therapists say is one of the most difficult for those who struggle with speech: the Hebrew letter shin, with the sound “sh” of the Shema.

Given that it is rote repetition, morning and night, the first sound of reciting the Shema is easy to take for granted, but for Moses, who never wished to be in front of the people, who never wished to speak, and who now begins his extended final charge with the sound perhaps most difficult to vocalize — it is a humbling moment — sad, vulnerable, lonely.

And worse, Moses is far from assured that the people will, in any sustainable way, shema, hear or listen to him. In this aspect, the midrashic interpretive stories imagine these words said even earlier than when the Torah narrative has Moses reciting them for the first time: The Midrash imagines Jacob (who also bears the name Israel), nearing the end of his life, gathering his family by his bedside, worried that even back then, the legacy of the people of Israel would fade with his death. It is the same worry that plagues Moses, generations later.

In the Midrash, Jacob’s sons reassure him with the same words, from our parshah, playing on the double — meaning that Israel is both the name of a people, and also Jacob’s name. The sons say, “Shema, yisrael — Listen, Israel (to them, ‘Dad’) — We know: Hashem is our God, only Hashem.”

In both scenes — the biblical moment of Moses standing and pleading for his legacy before the people of Israel, and the midrashically-imagined moment of Jacob/Israel worrying about his legacy — the words of the Shema are emotional. They are simultaneously defiant and heartbreaking, reassuring and desperate.

So now, a challenge: If and when we say these six words of the Shema, as part of our fixed prayer, can we evoke such emotion? Can we imagine ourselves, pleading for Jewish continuity, railing against the inevitable reality of our own mortality, both hopeful and questioning about the legacy we will leave behind? Can we face our own vulnerabilities and frailties, as Moses was forced to do, so publicly?

I hope that an awareness of the back story of the Shema may infuse our constant, repeated prayers with renewed urgency, devotion and relevance — so that we truly hear the words with newfound meaning.

Shabbat Shalom!  

Rabbi Eric Yanoff is the rabbi at Adath Israel in Merion Station. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.

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