Sh’ma Yisrael! – The Voices WE Hear
By Rabbi Norman T. Roman, Rabbi Emeritus
Temple Kol Ami of West Bloomfield, Detroit, Michigan (USA)
We sometimes overlook a special talent, such as Moses demonstrated, especially in the last book of the Torah, D’varim – Deuteronomy. While this week’s Parasha, Va-etchanan, gives us further insight into his emotions as a human being, we are also presented with Moses’ power as an inspirational orator.
“Sh’ma Yisrael” he cries out to the people – no less than five times. (In my generation in American memory, we think of the late Martin Luther King’s speech, “I have a dream…”) Rabbi Cheryl Peretz of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles describes it this way: “Like an ancient announcer, Moses summons the people to listen to what he is to say, for it is important . . . Within the words of the Sh’ma and V’ahavta are the most poignant and basic tenets of Jewish theology: There is one God. God is unique. The Jewish people have a special relationship with God. And relationship with God brings with it obligations and duties.”
It is the most famous phrase in all of our literature.
It seems to me that there are several ways to understand (and respond to) Moses’ call to us, for there are differences between ‘hearing’ and ‘listening’. Furthermore, many scholars and commentators interpret the word “Sh’ma” as “take heed” or “pay attention”. We can hear with our hearts as well as with our ears, we can listen with our minds and whole beings.
We must listen to the world’s cries as Israel, as Jews. Our perspective on the world and the human condition is a unique one, as our God is a unique One. The Creator has implanted within each of us the ability to hear and respond. We cannot remain deaf to pain, suffering, intolerance or hatred.
One of my teachers once wrote, “There is a Voice from Sinai in each one of us. It can turn us into cowards or heroes, saints or sinners. Unless we listen to this Voice when it speaks to us, we will have no peace.” That’s the voice from deep within our souls; some call it conscience. The Rabbis refer to the Yetzer HaTov (always in tension with the Yetzer HaRa), contemporary media present us with a Jiminy Cricket-type character who stands on our shoulder and whispers in our ear, and our most ancient texts challenge us to live
B’Tzelem Elohim, in the very image of God. Reciting Moses’ clarion words daily, “Sh’ma Yisrael!” empower us to remember who we are.
And this phrase (followed by the paragraphs collectively known as the V’ahavta) call to us to affirm the most crucial and necessary reaction to what and whom we are listening to, specifically to ‘love’. Sh’ma Yisrael, WHEN you listen, Israel, know that you are capable of sharing and caring and providing and consoling and enriching and nurturing – all of these emotions and behaviors that are the most meaningful in human existence. Truly, hearing is innately an act of love, for ourselves, for our dear ones, for a stranger, and for God.
Finally, Moses’ plea is for us to keep our ears and eyes open to the Presence of God, OUR God (Moses accepted that there were others, worshiped by his people’s neighbors). But OUR God is unique, manifest and seen in different ways. The quiet, still voice heard by the Prophets, and the Powerful voice of thunder at the top of the Mountain; the Presence felt by so many of us in our darkest moments, the Composer of the great music and story of our triumphs and achievements.
Moses called out: “Sh’ma Yisrael” Hear, O Israel. Our Jewish response, in prayer, in action, in the holy covenant of community is parallel to the lovers who exchange their vows of “I do!” under the marriage chuppah. We DO hear, we WILL listen, for WE ARE ISRAEL!