The Shema is the crux of monotheism: “Hear O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is one.” It’s one of the first prayers our children learn, and we assign it a variety of rituals. We might ask the children to make the Hebrew letter shin (showing 3 fingers) with their hands as they cover their eyes to teach that Shema begins with shin. In our house the Shema is a part of our bedtime ritual, sending our daughter to dreamland with one last bit of Jewish faith before she falls asleep. Traditionally, this is also the last prayer Jews will say upon their death bed. Whatever ritual you primarily associate with the prayer, the Shema is universal among Jews, and known by many outside the Jewish religion.
This week we read parshat Vaetchanan, the second section of text in the book of Deuteronomy. It is perhaps one of the most famous texts in our Torah. Moses requests to enter the land of Israel, but God remains firm in his punishment of forbidding Moses from stepping foot in the promised land. The Torah sends out a caution to observe the commandments therein and reaffirms that idols are prohibited, which we learn in the Shema, stating there is only one God. We also receive the second giving of the Ten Commandments and are to teach these words to our children.
There is extra attention paid to the idea that Judaism must be lived, it cannot simply be learned. Chapter 4, verse 9 teaches, “But take utmost care and watch yourselves scrupulously, so that you do not forget the things that you saw with your own eyes and so that they do not fade from your mind as long as you live. And make them known to your children and to your children’s children.” The Torah is insistent that Judaism hinges upon experience, and it provides pathways for those who were not able to witness the Exodus firsthand. None of us today were there at Sinai, but we certainly have the ability to live, breath, and experience Judaism on a daily basis.
The phrase “people of the book” is often used to lump together many of the so-called Abrahamic religions. Jews, Muslims, Baptists, Methodists, and others have embraced this way of aligning ourselves with the laws that define our various traditions. But if there was one term to distinguish Jewish tradition, you could make a strong argument for “witness.” We are a people of witnesses, and it is demanded of us that we see and engage in the world through a Jewish lens. That is the beauty of Jewish living.
The final letters of the first and last words of the Shema are ayin and daled. Ayin is the last letter in the word shema, and daled is the last letter in the word echad. Combined, they spell eid, witness. Our parshah this week teaches us that living our lives as Jews means that we are witness to the power of experience and the power of community. We cover our eyes to show our belief in God when we recite our central prayer, but we open our eyes in order to experience the wonder that is Jewish living and learning.
I’ll leave you with a final anecdote that is one of my favorite experiences as a rabbi so far. The religious questions that rabbis get from kids are the best. When is God’s birthday? Were there dinosaurs on Noah’s ark? An inquisitive first grader once asked me, “Why is the Shema written in the prayer book if we always cover our eyes when we say it?” What an astute observation. The sentiment is well represented in this week’s parshah. Clearly, there would be no need for our main tenet of faith to be written in the siddur if we all internalized these essential words the way we teach our children to do.