The Pathos of the Shema


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 yekkie 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 before some two million people.

He is alone, because his brother, Aaron, has died. Aaron had always been the spokesperson. 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, Moses stands alone. 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.

So now, a challenge: When we say these six words of the Shema, 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 spiritual leader at Adath Israel in Merion Station, Pa.


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