There is so much going on in this week’s Torah portion, Va-etchanan, that it is hard to focus on any one part. This week we read the Ten Commandments for a second time, we read about Moses recounting that he is not allowed to enter the land of Israel and we hear the Sh’ma, the central prayer/statement of faith in Judaism.
It is the Sh’ma I wish to focus on this week. Roughly translated the Sh’ma says, “Hear O Israel the Lord is our God, the Lord is one”. One teaching about this prayer that I truly enjoy comes from a former teacher of mine, Rabbi David Leiber, Z”L, in the Torah commentary he edited, Etz Chiam. In the Etz Chiam on the Sh’ma he cites a Midrash, a Jewish legend about the Torah, that says the words of the Sh’ma were actually first uttered on Jacobs death bed by his children. For Jacob’s sons their fathers birth name was Jacob, however, later in Jacob’s life God gave him the name Israel. Therefore, on Israel/Jacob’s death bed he expressed a worry that because his children and grandchildren were going to live in Egypt that they would turn to the Egyptian gods and turn away from our God. To assuage his worries, Israel’s children said, “Hear Oh Israel (Jacob), we accept the one God as our God”. With these words Israel’s children swore an oath that we still recite and bind ourselves to today.
In some prayer books there are two letters in Hebrew that are made larger than others in the Sh’ma. The two letters are the Ayin, which is the last letter in the word Sh’ma, and the Dalet, which is the last letter in the word echad, which means one. When one puts these two letters together it spells the word “ed” which means witness. According to Rabbi David Leiber, Z”L, “…to recite Sh’ma Yisrael (Hear O, Israel) is to testify to the unity and uniqueness of God. To live by the precepts of the Sh’ma is to bear witness to the truths of God’s Torah” (Etz Chiam Torah commentary page 1024).
What is this truth? The truth of what it means to bear witness. When we say the Sh’ma we are ostensibly saying we bear witness. We bear witness to the glory and majesty of creation. We bear witness to being committed to social justice. We bear witness to being a sacred community and sacred individuals. There is a lot we can learn about and study in this week’s Torah portion, but perhaps no concept is as central to what it means to be Jewish then to bear witness. When we bear witness to something, especially God’s role in the oneness of the universe, we become accomplices in that oneness, and therefore are complicit in all that happens in the world and by extension our role in bringing holiness into the world and all we do.
Rabbi Micah Ellenson