Seeing is Believing – Parshat Vaetchanan 5775

Seeing is Believing

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.

[photo credit: Black & White Justice via photopin (license)]

To Learn and to Teach, to Keep and to Do – Parshat Vaetchanan 5771

For those of you who have seen my office, you know that up until a few months ago my University of Michigan flag hung proudly as the centerpiece of artwork on my wall.  In fact, I never consider myself fully settled in a new place until that flag has been put up.  But, in April the flag was moved so that a beautiful piece of art by the artist Mordechai Rosenstein could grace my office.
The piece represents my philosophy of education taken from the prayer, Ahavah Rabbah, which comes before the Shema.  It states:
לִלְמֹד וּלְלַמֵּד, לִשְׁמֹר וְלַעֲשׂוֹת
. . . which means, to learn and to teach, to keep and to do.  I picked this piece of art – and more importantly this phrase – because I think it naturally and accurately teaches the fundamentals of Jewish education.  In Hebrew, the word for “teach” and the word for “learn” come from the same root.  That is to say that at our core we are all learners and teachers.  We learn by watching and listening to one another.  While we have teachers, rabbis and administrators whose job it is to actually and formally teach students, when we listen to one another, and when we share our ideas, we become teachers and others are the students.  Every day we have the opportunity to be both teachers and students.
The second half of the quotation teaches that we are “to keep and to do.”  It is our sacred obligation to guard, preserve and protect what is important to us, and at the same time take an active role in living our lives according to these customs and laws.  In keeping or guarding, we maintain that teaching spreads the tradition from one generation to the next so that it will never die.  The “doing” allows this to happen, and through practice, cements in us memories that carry us forward.
Judaism is a living religion; it is text based, but survived, maintained, taught and glorified through daily practice.  Here at Ann and Nate Levine Academy, we not only teach Judaism, but we promote living in inspired practice of our sacred heritage.  The education we provide here isn’t just from 8-4, but intended to fan the flames of the passion for learning that happens and is practiced in every aspect of life.  The value of learning is a lifelong value in Judaism.  Learning and teaching, keeping and doing are meant to kindle the spark within your soul.  This year, Levine Academy will focus on kindling the spark, the spark of learning, of Judaism and Jewish living, not only in your children, but in you as well.  We will be offering family engagement opportunities, along with parent learning across the grades.
In connection with this theme, my weekly D’var Torah will teach the Torah portion through the lens of action.  The Torah is a moving story, one that tells of generations and how their actions have brought us to this moment today.  Each week I will read and teach the parshah by way of teaching us how we can embrace living Jewishly.  I hope you’ll join me on this journey!
Abraham Joshua Heschel said it best when he called on Jews to take a “leap of action,” to do more than we understand so that we come to understand more than we do. I invite you to join our community of practice, a community that does more than we might understand in order to further our understanding of Judaism.    Please walk with Levine Academy on your journey, and let me know how I can help you.
ללמוד  To Learn: ללמד  To Teach: In this section each week will be one resource for you to use to learn more about the action item of the week.
לשמור  To Keep:  לעשות  To Do:  In this section each week will be an action item, a way to engage with Judaism actively and touch upon Jewish living in your own home.