Journey Into The Shema

Journey Into The Shema

By Bert Kleinman, July 29, 2023

It was a warm summer night in New York. The 12 year old Jewish kid was on his knees at the edge of his bed, his hands in a prayerful position. He knew very well he was Jewish, though he wasn’t quite sure what that meant. His grandparents were Jewish immigrants from the old country. His parents, though thoroughly secular, were culturally very Jewish, as were most of their friends, and all of his. He had no religious education, but desperately wanted to say something Jewish. So he recited 6 Hebrew words he knew… words that had come down to him through the ages. From the bottom of his heart the 12-year-old said: Shema Yisrael Adonai Elohenu Adonai Echad. The boy wasn’t quite sure what the words meant, but he said them anyway.

My journey from that bedroom in my parent’s house almost 70 years ago, to this bimah today, has been a long and complicated one. It’s a journey that led me away from Judaism in my late teens, and then back at the age of 40. It’s a journey that took me deep into prayer and the Shema, a journey that continues today.

I have little formal Jewish education, and I’m certainly not a scholar. So I won’t pretend to be able to tell you what the Shema ‘means’. But I can claim expertise in my personal, private, prayer life. And today I’d like to share a bit of it with you, in the hope that my spiritual journey into 6 words from this week’s parsha, might inform your journey and prayer life.

My return to Judaism began when I realized our tradition is more about questions, than answers… more about seeking, than knowing… more about covenant and conversation, than about one way communication from God. Then I learned that the Hebrew word for prayer, Lhitpalel, is reflexive… that in some way, prayer is more about something we do to ourselves, than something we do to God… that it may be more important that we hear our prayers, than that God does. In the words of AJ Heschel, prayer is  “not about form, it’s about what happens inside us when we pray.” So for me, the Shema isn’t so much a statement, as a meditation, an opening of doors. And each day, each time I say the Shema, it’s a voyage… a spiritual adventure.

It started as I set out to try to understand the traditional take on the Shema… as a statement. I asked what do those 6 words mean as a sentence? Why have those words been so central to the Jewish people for thousands of years… on our lips morning and night, on the lips of Rabbi Akiva and so many Jews at their moment of martyrdom… the frontlets between our eyes, the words posted on the doorposts of our homes and on our gates.

The pshat seems pretty simple, but it’s not. Is the Shema saying there is only one God — the classic statement of monotheism? Or is it saying there are other Gods, but YHVH, the God of the Torah, is ours and Supreme? Is it about God? Or our relationship to God?

In trying to understand the Shema as a statement, I read it aloud in different ways. Each way leading to a different nuance of meaning.

שְׁמַ֖ע יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ יְהֹוָ֥ה אֶחָֽד

שְׁמַ֖ע יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ יְהֹוָ֥ה אֶחָֽד

שְׁמַ֖ע יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ יְהֹוָ֥ה אֶחָֽד

שְׁמַ֖ע יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ יהֹוָ֥ה אֶחָֽד

שְׁמַ֖ע יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ יְהֹוָ֥ה  אֶחָֽד

שְׁמַ֖ע יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ יְהֹוָ֥ה  אֶחָֽד

Each of these readings leads me down a different road… to a different place for exploration.

Then there’s the experience of saying the Shema, and what meanings that experience brings. It’s customary to close the eyes to concentrate when reciting the Shema. But one day in prayer, I held my siddur up close to my face and I had a new experience. I heard my own voice reflected back to me from the page, merging with the voices of the many generations of Jews who wrote the siddur. So I started holding my siddur to my face as a practice. And then when praying with a minyan, I noticed that the voices of my prayer-mates merged with the voices coming from the siddur, and my own. I experienced a one-ness with my people, my history, my friends, myself… and since the words were originally dictated to Moses… a one-ness with God.

A couple of years ago, my journey took a different turn. I heard a podcast by Rabbi Brad Artson talking about his inner prayer life. He said that sometimes in prayer he feels like he’s an airplane taking off, soaring towards heaven. Other times he prays very slowly, meditating on every word. I had experienced soaring. But not the deep dive into each word… looking at each word as a hyperlink to other worlds of meaning… finding in each word further questions on which to reflect and meditate.

So I looked at each of the 6 words in the Shema… in order. And each word gave birth to a series of questions and opened new doors.

Shema. Lord Rabbi Jonathan Saks says the word is not really translatable. He wrote that it could mean listen, hear, reflect on, understand, internalize, respond in action or obey. To quote AJ Heschel again, “Jewish prayer is an act of listening. We do not bring forth our own words. The self is silent. The spirit of the people Israel speaks. In prayer we listen to what the words convey.” Was I listening? Did I hear? Did I engage and reflect? Was I responding to the words?

Yisrael. The pshat is both singular and plural. The listening isn’t just mine as an individual, but also as part of a people. What does it mean to be part of the people Israel? And what does it mean to listen as a Jew?  Yisrael is also the name given to Yaakov by God… a name which means one who wrestles with God. What am I wrestling with as I say these words? Do I need to win? Will I, like Yaakov, come away with a limp, and realize God was in this place and I didn’t notice? The deeper I dive into each word, the more questions and tentative answers emerge.

Adonai. Of course, that’s not what it says. The word is unpronounceable. Adonai is a vocalization of the tetragramaton YHVH. Adonai, Lord, is one of 70 traditional names of God in Hebrew. It’s one I’m not very comfortable with, both because of the anthropomorphic gender implication, and the King image. On the other hand, I am very comfortable with the traditional idea that Adonai represents God’s attributes of compassion, empathy, and mercy. The fact that Adonai is the first name of God in the Shema, speaks volumes to me about what God might be, and what I am listening to and worshiping. Beyond worship, this meaning of Adonai raises challenging personal questions: am I empathetic and compassionate with my family, my friends? With others with whom I may disagree? With myself? Huge challenges in a single word.

Eloheinu. The flip side of Adonai, Eloheinu reflects the traditional Godly attribute of strict justice. Should I hear Adonai OR Eloheinu? Mercy OR justice? Or should I hear Adonai AND Eloheinu? Mercy AND justice? How do I balance the two… with my family, friends, society and perhaps the hardest — with myself? Eloheinu is also in the possessive plural – OUR God not MY God. Who is the we? It’s a challenge to experience what it means to be Jewish. What “we” do I belong to? And normally, the word “our” means possession. What is it about God that I can or should possess?

Adonai… again. Usually in reciting the Shema, people pause before this word and end with Adonai Echad… implying that Echad refers just to Adonai. But what if I pause after the second Adonai and say Adonai Eloheinu Adonai together- kind of an Eloheinu sandwich — Justice surrounded by compassion on both sides?

Rabbi Artson has another take. He looks both Adonais through the lens of Process Theology. Rabbi Artson sees the first one as a reference to the moral potential of any action I might take. And he sees the second Adonai as the finality of each decision and action. What’s done is done. Questions abound: How do I make my choices? How do I deal with the implications and finality of my choices? In making my choices, am I taking a step towards God? Or away from God? Might God be a verb and not a noun?

Echad. If one looks at the word as following the Eloheinu sandwich, one could say it means the attributes of mercy and justice need to be united as one… two sides of the same coin. But that’s not the traditional take. In the Talmud the rabbis say Adonai Eloheinu, applies to the present, and Adonai Echad to the future. Jews are the ones who acknowledge God in the present, while in the future, the hope is that all humanity will. Rabbi Saks offers a number of other possible readings: There is only one God. God is a unity and indivisible. God is the only ultimate reality. God is one, despite seeming to be different things at different times in history. God alone is our King.

More questions… more ideas for exploration and reflection.

Hillel says in Pirke Avot 2:5: “Do not be sure of yourself until the day you die.”

So my journey continues each day… as I confront the 6 words, and try to hear them and engage with them. Some days, I soar on the words, letting their flow transport me towards Heaven. Other days I dive deep into one word or two… exploring their significance, our Jewish tradition, and what it all means to me. Each day is different.

Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav wrote “The world is full of the light of God, but to see it we must learn to open our eyes”. The Shema calls out for us to open our ears as well… to see the light, to hear the words… and sense the Presence and Potential of God in every moment… all around us.

Shabbat Shalom

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