This week’s Torah portion, V’etchanan, includes some Hebrew words that, if a person in their life utters any Hebrew words at all, these words are probably among them: Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad… “Hear O’Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is One.”
I’m curious what these words – so familiar – really mean to us?
From these words which our tradition has taken from the Torah and made into a prayer, a statement of faith – What do we internalize and make part of our being? These words which are to be our last said before going to sleep, when we wake up, and before we die; Words we are told to set upon our hearts, teach with care and loving and patience and intensity to our children; Words we are to say in our home and all along the roads we travel in our lifetime; Words we are supposed to bind onto our hands and keep before our eyes; The words we put in the mezuzot on our doorways and on our gates…What do these words really say to us?
Do we treat these words as a kind of magical incantation? Are these words a kind of catechism that we have to believe? (Don’t you think God was smarter than that – telling Jews what they have to believe?! Good luck with that!)
Is the meaning of the words themselves less important than the use we put those words to, as by reciting them in all the circumstances above? Or at a dramatic moment of our services at the synagogue? Are these words a riddle that we have to figure out – do we even know what they truly mean?!
For example, the word “Yisrael”: Does this mean the Jewish People as a whole, or you individually? Do you individually – yourself – feel a part of the collective whole saying these words and by so doing thereby include yourself, make yourself a part of the collective whole of Israel, through the generations, who recite these words?
Does “Yisrael” mean what the Torah says it means for Jacob, whose name was changed from Jacob to “Yisrael” when he struggled with his conscience, or an angel, or whatever it was that night he wrestled his being before he crossed the river to confront his brother Esau and his past? He was given that name “Yisrael” because “You have struggled with God and with humans and prevailed”.
Does “Yisrael” mean what it could mean in the original Hebrew of the Torah which does not use the dots and other vowel signs that help us read. “Yisrael” – ישראל – could be read with either the letter sihn – שׂ – or as a letter shin – שׁ – with the dot over the left side or the right side. On the left side, as a letter sihn, it means Yisrael as explained above, the name we all know and are familiar with. On the right side, as a letter shin, it spells “Yashar El”, which would mean “straight with God”…is that what the Shema is telling us? “Hear O ‘those of you who are straight and honest with God’: Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad…” Or maybe “Yashar El” is meant to be a reminder that God is a God of Truth, and if we want to encounter the Divine we need to figure out how to be straight and honest and true with ourselves and with one another in order to be straight and true and honest with God and the world…
And can any of us say we have understood the mysteries of “One”? Is that “One” as in the number “1”, and if so is that a description, or ranking? (God is in first place!); Or, is that “One” something qualitative, that God is “One” as in “complete” and “whole”? Or “One” that exists in contrast to “zero” – a “Something rather than a Nothing”? Or is “One” a one in the sense of one all-inclusive everlasting, an eternal one…?
Sigh…so much to think about in those few seconds several times a day when we shut our eyes and recite these words found in our Torah portion this week.