Va’etchanan: Listen!

Listen O Israel! The Lord our God the Lord is one. (Devarim 6:4)

Elohim is the God
of infinite cycles:
of genesis, growth,
senescence, decay;
of life’s wondrous design
and all its mutations.

Adonai is the God
of endless redemption:
the drive towards progress
the impulse for change –
the call that cries out
to attend to the world.

Can we marry what is
with what could yet be;
can we hear these two voices
and meld them as one?

In the middle of Parashat Va’etchanan, we read the verse “Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad – Listen, O Israel! The Lord is our God. The Lord is one.” (Devarim 6:4). This verse opens the Shema, the prayer that is recited twice each day, both in the morning and at night. The first prayer taught to small children, it is also to be recited on the death-bed. The Talmud (Berachot 61a) tells us that Rabbi Akiva, who was martyred in the second century, died with the Shema on his lips as did a long succession of Jewish martyrs.
A Midrash traces the origin of this verse to the dying moments of Jacob’s life, when he was concerned that his descendants living in Egypt would assimilate. They reassured him, saying, “Listen O Israel! We accept the one God as our God.” (Devarim Rabbah 2:35).

The Etz Hayim commentary notes that the word “Shema – Hear (or listen)” reminds us that not only should we be talking to God when we pray, but we should also be listening when He talks to us. In an increasingly noisy world, we are mandated to stop and listen to what the words of the prayer are trying to impart to us.

In a commentary on Parashat Va’etchanan from 2008,, Professor Arnold Eisen submits that this parasha contains theological concepts so essential to the Torah’s aspirations for Israel that the rabbis incorporated them into the daily liturgy. However, Rabbi Eisen adds that he believes that in this parasha, each reader is being addressed individually. “It addresses us person by person, one-on-one, in the same way we enter into every serious relationship and tremble with each true love.” He notes that in the first phrase, the command to listen is in the singular – it could thus be translated “Listen O Israelite!…” He continues “How shall we — each of us — perform the acts of listening and hearing (both meanings for shema are explicit in the course of the parashah) to which the Torah calls us?”
He notes that the Torah does not address belief in God from a philosophical standpoint, rather it is occupied with a template for a social order in which there is justice and righteousness.

In another commentary on Parashat Va’etchanan,, Rabbi Gilah Langner addresses several interpretations of this verse noting the changes in meaning of these six words through history. She suggests that when the Israelites were surrounded by pagan civilizations, the emphasis might have been: there is only one Israelite God and He is Adonai. Once monotheistic religions became more widespread, the Shema took on a slightly altered meaning – that while Adonai is our God, eventually Adonai will come to be recognized and accepted as the one unrivaled God.
Rabbi Langner continues “Another strain of thought, which has had a resurgence of popularity in recent years, focuses on the different aspects of divinity implied by the terms Adonai (Lord) and Elohim (God). While Elohim relates to the timeless, cyclical manifestation of God in the natural universe, Adonai is the Jewish God of transformation, the God who makes a difference, who liberates from slavery and brings about healing and creativity.” Rabbi Langner cites Rabbi Harold M Schulweis in his book For Those Who Can’t Believe: Overcoming the Obstacles to Faith, “divinity includes both the reality principle of Elohim and the ideality principle of Adonai. Adonai is the source of healing; Elohim, the life of the universe.”
Rabbi Langner suggests that the Shema is teaching us that both aspects are merged in the Divine. “Adonai and Elohim are one and the same. What a radical notion that is, what a radical statement about the universe the Sh’ma becomes: yes to reality, and yes to transformation! Yes to nature (including human nature) and yes to healing. Yes to unchanging permanence and yes to constant becoming – ‘ehyeh asher ehyeh’, God’s self-proclaimed name: ‘I will be what I become.'”
Rabbi Langner expands this: “The Sh’ma can be seen as a fundamental principle for grounding social action and social transformation in a deep understanding of the limits of what is, as well as a boundless optimism for what can yet be achieved.” She cites a conversation about the concept of Adonai and Elohim with Rabbi Ira Eisenstein who said, “Adonai in a sense is fighting Elohim to let people live. You look at Elohim – you see disease, earthquakes, people dying. If you didn’t find a trace of Adonai, you’d be living in a godless world. But the Adonai side is the difficult side. [Rabbi] Mordecai Kaplan would say that you have to seek out those aspects of reality that make for salvation. There is a verse in [this week’s portion of] the Torah that says: ‘You will find Him if you search for Him with all your heart and spirit’ (Deuteronomy 4:29).”
Rabbi Langner maintains that this first verse of the Shema summons us to foster this perception as a people. She cites Harold Fisch in his book Poetry With a Purpose, “The divine unity is realized only when there is a community of hearers to achieve that perception, to make that affirmation; it is a perception that has to be striven for, created in the act of reading, hearing, and understanding.””
So she wonders how we can bring this concept of divine unity into the world.
The answer follows in the next verse: “Ve’ahavta et Adonai Elohecha – you shall love the Lord your God…” We are enjoined to adhere to God’s commandments and keep them wholeheartedly, all the time – when we are at home or away, when we are resting and when we are active.

The Etz Hayim commentary notes that the commandment to love our neighbor is found in Vayikra 19:18; the commandment to love the stranger is found in Vayikra 19:34, while the commandment to love God comes later, in Devarim. This commentary continues “We learn to love God by practicing loving God’s creatures, our fellow human beings. “Love the Lord your God” commands not belief but behavior.”

Rabbi Langner concludes, “Only by acting in the world with compassion, and treating one another with justice and equality will the healing aspects of God become manifest and draw others to a deeper understanding and love of God. To “love God” we must act with loving intention towards all of Creation.”

And finally, in a commentary on Va’etchanan,
Rabbi Dorothy A. Richman opens with the poem entitled Shema by Primo Levi:

You who live secure
In your warm houses
Who return at evening to find
Hot food and friendly faces:
Consider whether this is a man,
Who labors in the mud
Who knows no peace
Who fights for a crust of bread
Who dies at a yes or a no.
Consider whether this is a woman,
Without hair or name
With no more strength to remember
Eyes empty and womb cold
As a frog in winter.
Consider that this has been:
I commend these words to you.
Engrave them on your hearts
When you are in your house,
when you walk on your way,
When you go to bed, when you rise.
Repeat them to your children.
Or may your house crumble,
Disease render you powerless,
Your offspring avert their faces from you.

Rabbi Richman ponders why Primo Levi, who survived Auschwitz, entitles his poem Shema “Hear!” and structures it on the framework of possibly the best-known prayer in the Jewish prayer book.
She suggests that Primo Levi is revisiting this ancient prayer through the prism of human suffering, and enjoining us to listen to this suffering. This, she contends, is what Levi would have us engrave on our hearts and be attentive to at all times. She says “His poem commands a single-minded focus not on the unity of God but on a sub-set of God’s creatures, people living in poverty and chaos.” So she asks how might we hear this suffering. She says in some ways, it is easier than ever before. Internet access affords instant exposure to countless tragedies particularly in the developing world. Crises of poverty, disease, violence and war are almost ubiquitous. But, Rabbi Richman says, “…listening is not enough. The verb shema carries additional meanings –it also denotes doing, obeying, performing, acting. Perhaps Levi titled his poem Shema precisely for its multiple meanings. He wanted to jolt his reader, through graphic and painful images, into action. Emmanuel Levinas, a famous contemporary Jewish philosopher, described the traditional Shema as an awakening: “‘Hear, Israel!'”
Rabbi Richman concludes “I read the poem’s upsetting closing curses as a contemporary warning: if we do not awaken, if we will not hear, if we do not use our blessings of privilege to improve the situation of those who suffer privation, we deny our own power to create change. There are serious consequences to this failure of action.
“There are many ways to respond to the voices of those who suffer: to educate ourselves on issues of global justice, to volunteer, to advocate, to share our resources. The Shema, according to Jewish law, is supposed to be said aloud. It makes sense: we are crying out to one other: “Listen, Israel! Act!” This week, will you hear it?”


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