The Jew as Witness
It is extraordinary how six short words and two large letters can have such impact on our self-understanding as Jews, yet this is the significance of the first words of the Shema. The Shema, taught in this week’s Torah portion, is encased in our mezuzot and tefillin, enshrined in our evening and morning prayers, ataught to our children and recited by us on our death. Yet while these words are present in our lives, their significance is not always pondered.
The first two words invoke our sense as a people, a nation. Moses begins his instruction “Shema Yisrael” – hear Israel. So many of us think “Jewish” is our religion, when there is not even a word for religion in the Torah. Israel comprised a collection of tribes who shared a land, a language and a way of life. Of those tribes, Judah was the primary one to survive, and thus our identity as Jews. What follows is what makes us unique as a people – we not only share land, language and law, but also a faith that shapes our values.
Moses instructs us “Adonai Eloheinu” – meaning Adonai is our God. But Adonai is actually a substitute for the original word in the declaration of the Shema which is comprised of four letters – yud, hey, vav, hey – that are a form of the verb “to be”. Moses is instructing us, that “Being” is what our God is.
In the final two words, Moses then teaches “Adonai Echad” – thus, Being is One. From this derives the understanding that our God is all about the unity of being – meaning all life is interconnected, and we are just an aspect of all that is. Everything in life flows from that – all our obligations to do right by others, to protect our environment, to care for animals, to care for our bodies and souls, to act with compassion and humility – everything is connected to everything.
Finally, two large letters – an “ayin” at the end of the first word and a “daled” at the end of the last word. Together these letters spell the Hebrew word “ed”, or witness.
The task of each Jew is to give witness that life is a unity and all of us are called to serve it.
These days many Jews love our food and culture, but are less aware of our faith and call to consciousness. Yes, we are a proud and ancient people, as in “Shema Yisrael”. But we are also unique for we are also a faith people – and it is our faith that has spurred our ability to survive tragedy, as we recalled on Tisha B’Av this week. Our words and deeds, our behavior throughout our waking moments, is meant to demonstrate that we internalize our core teaching: connected to all, we strive towards concern and consideration for all.