I recently got a great book in the mail, The Avian Rebbe Stretches His Wings. It’s the second in a series by bird photographer and Torah teacher/student, Aaric Eisenstein. known as the Avaian Rebbe for finding wisdom in the beauty of our feathered friends. The Talmud says that we can learn Torah from every creature, and Aaric brings this to life in his creative teachings.
I was honored to provide an approbation (fancy word for a book blurb) for the work of this true kindred spirit who, like Wellsprings of Wisdom, loves to discover the everyday connections between Nature and Torah. Anyone who adores birds, bird photography, and meaningful wisdom for life will be sure to enjoy the Avian Rebbe’s newsletterand his posts on Facebook or Instagram. (There’s also a podcast and videos…) I’m frankly in awe at Aaric’s ability to produce such consistent and meaningful content, although he might say that the birds bring it on their wings and he just receives and transmits it as a gift from the Source of All.
“Be Grounded. Fly High.” is the the Avian Rebbe’s motto, and I’m sure that you will enjoy his teachings and beautiful photography as much as I do.
Learn more about the meaning of birds in Jewish tradition in the Gateway of Wings.
Tikkun Hayam, Repair the Sea is a Jewish organization that I support, whose mission is “to share the spiritual wonders of water and the Sea from a Jewish perspective, and to raise awareness and encourage action to address the many threats facing the aquatic environment.” They teach and educate about the importance of water to all of life as well as Jewish tradition, and offer programs such as “Reverse Tashlich” beach cleanups, planting corals in Israel, and teaching scuba diving. Enjoy this video made earlier this year by Tikkun HaYam about the meaning of water in Jewish tradition, along with some good news about coral reefs, and keep learning more about Jewish lore of the Sea in the Gateway of The Sea.
My friends, singing duo “The Levins” (pronounced Le-VINS) just wrote a beautiful and heartfelt song in the spirit of Yom Kippur and seeking forgiveness and reconciliation. And they asked to use my videos made here at the Delaware beaches. I hope you find this meaningful:
There is an old rabbinic teaching that we should leave a little bit of our house unfinished. (Had these guys seen my townhouse in Philly?) But seriously, leaving a bit of our house unfinished was to be a reminder of the destruction of the Temple. More broadly, it signals that life is unfinished, that all good things are incomplete.
Shabbat is another reminder that things are never finished. Rabbi Tarfon’s famous saying starts, “It is not up to you to complete the work.” Lo alecha hamelachah ligmor. Interestingly, while there are several words for “work” in Hebrew, but the word that he chose for “work” is the precise term that the Torah uses for the tasks that are not allowed to do on Shabbat. Lo ta’ase kol melachah(you shall do no work).
It is a mitzvah—one of the big 10—to leave our work unfinished once a week. Whether or not there is something major on our to-do list, it can wait a day. Think of it as a practice of knowing we can’t and shouldn’t try to do it all.
I was brought up to believe that you should finish what you start, no matter how long it takes. But in an existential sense, life is all about unfinished business. In his book: “Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals,” author Oliver Berkeman takes on time management. Whether it is our youthful list of dreams, endless to-do lists in our working years, or our beckoning bucket list in retirement: life is finite, and we have to let go of the illusion that productivity or even prioritization will somehow enable us to accomplish everything we dream of or that society expects of us.
The High Holidays, too, remind us that our life is limited. Prayers like “Unetaneh Tokef,” which we said in this morning’s service, remind us that human life is fleeting and much is beyond our control. But to paraphrase a saying from the technological world: our inability to complete everything in our lifetimes not a bug in the system; it’s a feature. Let me suggest that the very fact that we can’t do it all, that we hand over the world to other people after us, is the thing gives our live meaning.
The idea of unfinished business in life is central to the Torah. In a couple of weeks we will “finish” reading the Torah and the conclusion may feel less than satisfying. After we have spent 4 books following the career of Moses as the leader of our people, God tells Moses to ascend Mt. Nevo in the Jordan Valley, and from there he shows him the whole panorama of the land of Israel. But then the kicker: “I have let you see it with your own eyes, but you shall not cross there.”
Moses dies with a kiss from God and is buried in an unmarked grave. The story of our people will continue without him, yet always with him. Reading this story again and again, year after year, is not just for more information. Some people say that the book of Joshua, of entering and conquering the land, should be the sixth book of the Torah. But tellingly, we don’t read it in full in the synagogue. We are much more riveted by the unfinished business of Moses than the glorious continuation. The unfinished story at the end of the Torah is a continual reminder that even our greatest leader couldn’t complete the work, and neither can we.
In a sense Moses represents the idealist in each of us. He wants to be in the promised land, but also with an exemplary society, a holy nation following the Torah. With pain and protest, he learns to be satisfied with a vision of his dream and with knowing that he has nurtured a successor and generation(s) to come. Many of us here are also idealists and we want to see our hopes for society come to fruition, whether it’s true equality for women, healing the environment or a fully just society. We want to see it all in our lifetimes, but like Moses, we eventually realize that the journey to our ideals may be the destination.
Moses eventually focused on building up his successor, and preparing a new generation to go on without him. Because he let go, he lives on. Some 3400 years later, we still call him, “Moses our teacher.”
Our tradition of unfinished business doesn’t stop with Moses. Fast forward a few centuries, and we have the indelible story of King David, who also had a great project he never got to fulfill. King David ascended to the throne, vanquished Israel’s enemies, and made Jerusalem his capital. But his greatest dream was left to the next generation. He doesn’t get to build the Holy Temple because he has been warlike and shed innocent blood. (Chronicles 1 22). His son, Solomon whose name means peace, Melech Shlomo, can build the Temple, a place of peace. King David wanted to build a “house” for God, but he learned, somewhat ironically, that God would be the One to build the “house” for him, meaning, not a fancy building, but people – his family and dynasty (Samuel II 7:11).
Like King David, some in our midst have been achievers in our careers. We didn’t conquer nations, but we may be—or have been—heroes and VIP’s. While gaining satisfaction from our work, many high achievers eventually come to find that other things are more valuable in the long run. It reminds me of a saying by actor Jim Carrey: “I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of…so they can see that it’s not the answer.” While King David thought this his crowning achievement would be building an edifice in the capital he had founded, instead he learned that his descendants would be the greatest legacy to survive him. And some 3000 years later, we still sing, David Melech Yisrael, chai ve-kayam, “David, King of Israel lives on.”
The third example in classic Jewish texts of the unfinished comes from the time of the early rabbis, a thousand years after King David It is the story of Honi Ha-Me’agel. Honi was a kind of Jewish Johnny Appleseed – he went around the Holy Land planting carob trees.[i] One day someone asked Honi how long it would take for the tree to grow tall and bear fruit. He replied, “Seventy years!” The next question was, “Are you certain that you will live another seventy years?” Honi answered, “I found carob trees in the world; as my ancestors planted these for me so I too plant these for my children.”
Now our Jewish Jonny Appleseed (or carob-seed) turned into Rip Van Winkle. An afternoon nap turns into 70 years, and when awakens, the tree is fully grown and bearing fruit. Honi realizes what’s going on and journeys to his village which is now so changed as to be almost unrecognizable. He enters the House of Study and tries to convince people who he is, but no one believes him or honors him. This hurts Honi so much that he prays for death. The Sage Raba notes, “Hence the saying: Either companionship or death.” (oh chevruta oh mituta). It was better to plant for an unseen future than to actually visit there. If Moses was the idealist, and King David the achiever, Honi was what philosophers call an effective altruist, doing things for the good of people he never expected to meet.
The story of Honi has been rediscovered in an age of environment concern, along with the holiday of Tu Bishvat, the New Year of Trees. We are like Honi every time we plant a seed, real or metaphorical, for something in the future without needing to know what that future will be like or who will be the ultimate beneficiary of our work.
When I meditate, I’m told to “be here now.” But being happy in the here and now actually depends on knowing that there is something bigger than us that outlasts us. According to philosophy professor Samuel Scheffler, author of Why Worry About Future Generations?, knowing that we aren’t the completion, that life continues after us, is critical to our happiness and feelings of value and meaning in the present. He suggests various scenarios: if we knew that we would live a great life, but the human race wouldn’t last much longer, through violent or even peaceful means, we would become depressed and lose much of our meaning in life.
According to Prof. Scheffler, because we take this belief in the future for granted, “we don’t think much about its significance. Yet …this belief plays an extremely important role in our lives, quietly but critically shaping our values, commitments, and sense of what is worth doing. Astonishing though it may seem, there are ways in which the continuing existence of other people after our deaths — even that of complete strangers — matters more to us than does our own survival and that of our loved ones.” And that’s why knowing that we are part of efforts that may take generations, from scientific discovery to social justice, give life greater meaning, not less.
This is something secular society seems to be discovering as our future is threatened by climate change. But as Jews, we have always been blessed with a consciousness of the links between generations, what we owe the past and what we want to convey to the future: the chain of tradition, the legacy of values and ideas, the Masoret, literally that which is passed on from one generation to the next.
We aren’t Moses or King David or even Honi Ha Me’agel. But like Moses, we can devote our whole lives to our ideals, while knowing that we will end up passing the work of a better society to the next generation. Reflecting on King David, we can realize that no matter how impressive our career achievements, our greatest satisfaction may the relationships that will live on after us. And like Honi Ha-Me’agel, knowing that we are doing the best to provide a healthy and beautiful environment for future generations can allow us to truly enjoy the blessings of life, right in the here and now.
[i] The Talmud’s original Aramaic is ambivalent if he was doing the planting or learning from someone else doing so. (Bavli Taanit 23a)
Here’s a talk that I gave recently at my synagogue about Awe. Awe in nature is one of the touchstones of Wellsprings of Wisdom, so I’m sharing it here:
Sunrise at Cape Henlopen State Park, photo by Julie Danan
I’m not really a morning person…but I get up before sunrise as much as I can to go see sunrise at the beach…because of the Awe. A recent Torah portion tells us that God wants us to feel Awe. Awe of the force of life of YHWH and I would say we can get that from Awe of creation, of life, of the mystery.
And now, O Israel, what [Mah] does Adonai your God ask of you?
But only: to be in awe of Eternal,
To walk in all God’s paths,
To love God and to serve Adonai Your God with all your heart and soul,
Keeping God’s mitzvot and laws, which I command upon you today, for your good.
This Torah portion commands us to have awe of God. Yir’ah, Awe, is sometimes translated as fear. According to my teacher Rabbi Marcia Prager, it differs from the word for fear, “pahad” (po-had=here is something sharp), which is just be scared because one is a “pah–had,” a separate, lonely entity. Yir’ahיראה comes from the root, “to see,” and signifies a sense of seeing beyond our everyday blinders and of feeling ourselves seen by the Divine.
We are living in a world of fear-mongering. Our news, our social media, stir us up to a continual state of anxiety. But instead the Torah urges awe. Awe, Yir’ah, is the antidote to fear, Pachad.
In Man is Not Alone, 1951 (p. 31) Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: “As civilization advances, the sense of wonder [at the root of all true religion] almost necessarily declines. Mankind will not perish for want of information, but only for want of appreciation.
“The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living. What we lack is not a will to believe but a will to wonder.”
If that sentiment was true in 1951, it is all the true decades later, when we are inundated by information, but sometimes much too rushed for awe and appreciation. The Washington Post did a famous experiment a few years back, and commissioned famous violinist Joshua Bell to play on a magnificent Stradivarius violin in a DC Washington Metro station. He played six classical pieces for 43 minutes as over a thousand people passed by. Only seven people stopped to listen, while another 27 gave money as they ran buy. Almost every child stopped, and every single time, their parents rushed them along.
Photo by JHD: Sunset Clouds at Cape Henlopen Fishing Pier, Lewes)
Psychologists tell us that Awe is good for us. According to an article by Summer Allen for “Greater Good Magazine,” research suggests that Awe can do at least 8 things for us:
1.Awe may improve your mood and make you more satisfied with your life
2. Awe may be good for your health
3. Awe may help you think more critically
4. Awe may decrease materialism
5. Awe makes you feel smaller and more humble
6. Awe can make you feel like you have more time
7. Awe can make you more generous and cooperative
8. Awe can make you feel more connected to other people and humanity
Note in our Torah reading above…feeling awe leads to walking in Godly ways…
It sounds great—how can we get more Awe? Can we seek it – as RebZalman would day, can we “hothouse peak experiences.”
Consider or discuss with someone: How do you find Awe?
Rashi read this Torah portion in an interesting way. When Moses asked, “what ‘mah” does G-d require of us?” Rashi creatively reread Mah as : “ Meah” a hundred.
Rabbi Meir in the Talmud (Menahot 43b) we are required to say 100 blessings or berachota day Menahot 43b. By saying many blessings in prayer and for each food, sight, or scent we experience in the course of a day, we can arrive at 100.
But we can also just stop and say a blessing in our own words. We can pause during our busy days to notice, to feel a moment of wonder and awe, and acknowledge it, perhaps by saying “Mahtovu!” (How Good it is!) or “Holy Wow!” (I first heard that from Rabbi Rachel Barenblat). Or Baruch Atah, “blessed are you” and make your own beracha, or just take a moment to be aware that “That’s awesome.” Our beloved member David Kobrin of blessed memory used to say, “1, 2, 3, -ah!”
Jews around the world are preparing to embark the Days of Awe, YamimNoraim. We often call it the High Holy Days but it’s really a time that we are supposed to experience Awe in community. How can we bring the things we all suggested into our communal experience? Clearly, awe won’t happen if it’s just the Rabbi and Cantor as copilots and the congregation buckles in and comes along for the ride. It requires active participation, before and during. This is a whole season to cultivate awe. If you are going to participate in the Jewish holidays, I suggest that you come with your eyes open for wonder as Rabbi Heschel would say. May the upcoming Days of Awe help us to open to the Awe that is available to use very day!
Note: I also shared this sermon on my Rabbi Blog for Seaside Jewish Community.
Shalom! I hope you will enjoy a re-design of many pages on this website, to make it easier to explore the posts on each theme.
Wellsprings of Wisdom is a Virtual Retreat Center where you can explore and interact with Jewish symbols from nature. This site is organized around four Portals: Earth, Water, Air, and Fire. Each of those four Portals contains four Gateways, including symbolic themes like, “Gardens,” “Wilderness,” Flowing Water,” “The Moon.” And each of those Gateways contains an abundance of Pathways, individual posts that explore the theme. The posts include teachings from ancient sources as well as media, photography, personal reflections by me and others, Tikkun Olam (social action for making the world better) and a Sharing Circle in each Gateway for you to share your own experiences on that theme.
The Pathways (posts) in each Gateway were previously displayed in a carousel. I thought it was a little hard to find what you’re looking for, so I asked my web designer, Shaun Lieber, to redesign the pages so that you can see all the posts at a glance (they won’t all fit on one page, but you can follow an arrow at the bottom of the pages for more). That way, you can choose to follow the pages in the way they are offered, which takes you on a journey through Jewish tradition and into the personal and social aspects of the theme, and concludes with the Sharing Circle. OR feel free to browse through the posts and see what interests you most — follow your heart!
When violent and hateful acts roil the world, many leaders share that the victims are in their “thoughts and prayers.” The phrase has become an empty slogan for many, seen as just an excuse for inaction, or a passive wish that God will solve problems that we don’t want to address. But the Jewish traditions that I know always link prayer to action. I’ve been reflecting and teaching on this topic in recent weeks.
Peace Pole at Seaside Jewish Community
Here are some things that I’ve learned about the link between prayer and action in Jewish tradition.
First, there are many customs and practices that link prayer with action. At a traditional weekday minyan, tzedakah is collected. The Shulchan Aruch (major Code of Jewish Law) states that one must give tzedakah before praying. My teacher, Reb Zalman, taught us to always give tzedakah when we prayed for people’s healing, with the idea of, “put your money where your mouth is.” I also learned that if we are praying for someone who is ill, we should visit them (and conversely, when visiting them we should prayer for them—even a wish of Refuah Shelemah, a speedy recovery, is a type of prayer).
During the Days of Awe (a.k.a. the High Holy Days), even children learn that we can’t pray to God for forgiveness with first making amends with the person we have wronged. And the High Holy Day liturgy calls us to Teshuvah (repentance), Tefilah (prayer), and Tzedakah (charity). Note how prayer is wedged between two kinds of action.
A second way that Judaism ties together prayer and action is that prayer can give us the strength to act. Prayer services are a time to connect with others, be sustained, celebrate or mourn, and then be restored to act.
In Judaism, prayer is linked to responsibility. The very word to pray, “li-hitpalel” means to examine oneself, to judge oneself. Brad Sugar of American Jewish World Service, writes, “A true ‘tefillah’—an act of reflective self-examination by one who seeks to emulate compassion and kindness—changes us. Beyond offering thoughts and prayers, the natural next step is to take action to make change in our lives and in the lives of others.’”
Finally, Jewish tradition teaches that sometimes action itself is the best prayer. One of the most famous quotations from the great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, theologian and social activist, who marched with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke of this when he said “For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.”
I recently learned from from a Black colleague, the Rev. Marjorie Burns that, Rev. Frederick Douglass, the great abolitionist and statesman, had used the same phrase in a different way. He said, “When I was a slave I tried praying for three years. I prayed that God would emancipate me, but it was not till I prayed with my legs that I was emancipated.” But we could also go all the way back to the Torah (Exodus 14:15) to find something similar: “The Eternal said to Moses: Why do you cry out to Me? Speak to the children of Israel and have them go forward.” The Talmud (Sotah 37a) explains that this happened on the verge of the splitting of the Sea:
At that time, Moses was prolonging his prayer. The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to him: My beloved ones are drowning in the sea and you prolong your prayer to me? Moses said before Him: Master of the Universe, but what can I do? God said to him: “Speak to the children of Israel that they go forward. And you, lift up your rod and stretch out your hand” (Exodus 14:15–16).
There are some of the many ways Jewish tradition (and beyond) teaches that thoughts and prayers should lead to action. Let me know in the comments (If reading this on the “What’s New” Blog, click on the title to get to a page where you can comment) if and how prayer and action are linked for you.
Note: I also shared a version of this Devar Torah (Torah teaching, sermon) on my Rabbi Blog for Seaside Jewish Community.
Happy Earth Day! 🌎 This year Earth Day coincides with the Seventh Day of Passover, a holy day to commemorate the splitting of the Red (Reed) Sea during the Exodus from Egypt.
I remember the first Earth Day in 1970, which was started to work for environmental change after 20 million people took to the streets in protest after a massive oil spill the year before. In 2009, the United Nations deemed it Mother Earth Day.
South Lake Tahoe, Photo: Julie H. Danan
Each year Earth Day.org has a special theme for the day: “This year, earthday.org has selected the theme, ‘Invest In Our Planet’. It explains, ‘This is the moment to change it all — the business climate, the political climate, and how we take action on climate. Now is the time for the unstoppable courage to preserve and protect our health, our families, our livelihoods… together, we must ‘Invest In Our Planet’.” (Source: The Indian Express). Science, government, education, business, and many other sectors must come together to heal our ecosystems.
I believe that religion and spirituality can and must have a positive role in healing and caring for our precious planetary Garden of Eden in the cosmos. In Jewish mystical thought, nature itself is is a manifestation of the divine presence (Shekhinah). Whatever your personal belief system, consider how you can direct it to support the environment. Those of us who do nature photography can also play a role by inspiring a greater love, reverence, and understanding of the natural world.
Each of us has a part to play in caring for and healing our relationship to Mother Earth. The stakes are urgent, and the rewards are boundless for generations to come.
We’ve started a new series at my congregation, “Deep Dive into Prayer” (pretty appropriate for Seaside Jewish Community 🌊)
At certain services, we will focus in on one prayer or one section of the liturgy, and “dive deep” by exploring it’s history and meanings, while also experiencing it in new ways. The first one was on March 12, 2022, when I shared this teaching about the Shema, with an exercise at the end from my teacher, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. I wanted to share it with all of you at Wellsprings of Wisdom, too.
by Rabbi Dr. Julie Hilton Danan
Let’s take a deep dive into prayer and focus on one line, just 6 words, words that define us as a people and have even changed the course of history:
Sheme Yisrael Adonai Eloheynu Adonai Echad
Or let me call this, #essenceofjudaisminsixwords (essence of Judaism in six words).
Let me take you back: In the aftermath of World War II, Youth Aliyah workers from Israel circulated among the refugees in Europe’s displaced persons camp, looking for Jewish children who had lost everything. They met destitute young orphans who had no conscious memory of their early homes or prewar lives. How to know if they are Jewish? The workers say to them each child in turn: Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheynu, Adonai Echad. When the children showed a moment of recogniction or said the words with them, they had found another Jewish child to bring home to the Land of Israel.”
Flash forward a few decades. As a rabbi, I visit at the bedsides of infirm and frail Jews who seem lost in their own worlds, not responding to anything I say. But when I sing the Shema, they brighten and sing along with me.
What is the power of this six word prayer that is among the first words taught to Jewish children, the prayer that Jews aspire to make our last words? The Shema encapsulates in one sentence the essence of the Jewish mission in the world. (Yes, the full Shema has three biblical paragraphs that go after it, but for now I will focus on six Hebrew words of the first line).
The odd thing about the Shema is that it’s a prayer that isn’t exactly a prayer. Consider: who is it addressing? Not God, but us, Israel: Listen Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is one. It is calling on us, more a declaration of belief than a plea or a praise.
The words of the Shema, straight from the Torah (Deuteronomy 6:4), are first said by Moses to the people of Israel near the end of his life, as he gives them instructions on how to live as a people. If you look in a Torah scroll (and some Siddurim / Jewish prayer books), you will notice that they are written a special way: the ayin—the last letter in Shema, and the dalet, the last letter in Echad, are written extra big. One reason that has been given is so that we pronounce them correctly. But the more spiritual reason that has been given for this is that those two letters together spell out a Hebrew word, “’Ed,” meaning “witness.”
When we say the “Shema,” we are witnesses to our most profound truths as Jews. But what are we witnessing? A while back on social media there was a hashtag called “Six word stories.” #sixwordstories Just like it said, you shared six words to tell a story. The Shema is the Jewish version. In six words:
Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheynu Adonai Echad
we get an essence of Judaism.
Let’s unpack those six words, one by one:
Shema: Listen! Hearken! Understand!
Deep listening is the beginning of making peace and creating a better world. That’s a profound truth that I learned from my friends and mentors, Len and Libby Traubman. Len, of blessed memory, was a pediatric dentist in San Mateo California, and his wife Libby, may she merit long life, was in social work. But their real profession was being lamed-vavniks (those legendary humble righteous people who sustain the world).
Life changed for the Traubmans in 1969. I found out recently that the two things changed their life trajectory that year were the birth of their first child, and seeing an image of our earth from outer space, the very that my teacher Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (Reb Zalman) called the most important religious icon of our age. Motivated by this radical new perspective, the Traubmans became global citizens. They devoted their lives to dialogue, from Cold War citizen diplomacy between Americans and Russians, to the Middle East, to Africa, and to their own California neighborhood. They started the first and longest lasting Palestinian-Jewish living room dialogue group, that inspired many others, including one that I started in San Antonio with a Palestinian Muslim Imam. The Traubmans constantly shared hopeful news of peace and made connections between people around the world, and it all started with one idea: LISTEN to others, HEAR their stories. By doing so you turn a stranger and potential enemy into a friend.
Len described it like this: “What is distinctive about dialogue as a way of communication is very different than ‘conversation’ which is shallow, conversational, and usually pretty safe. And ‘discussion’ which is like percussion–batting a ping-pong ball back and forth, waiting for what I want to say. And it is definitely not ‘debate’ which is I win, you lose; we learn nothing; and we become further apart. Dialogue has a really new quality of listening and listening to learn, not waiting for what I’m going to say next. And what it does is it dignifies both people. It dignifies the listener and it dignifies the person who is being listened to.”
How much we need this approach to dialogue right now! The word Shema and the Shema prayer call us to live our lives as deep listeners, bridging gaps and increasing understanding.
There is also a hint in the word “Shema,” to seeing. Reb Zalman adds that the big letter Ayin in the word “Shema” tells us to see as well as to hear. That’s because the word “ayin” means, “eye.” So the word Shema is telling us to open our ears to hear others, to listen to their stories, and to open our eyes wide to see others.
The second word: Yisrael / Israel.
That’s us. We are the children of Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel. One Midrash holds that the real first time the Shema was recited was when Jacob/Israel’s sons said it to him on his deathbed: “Listen Israel—listen Dad—we are all faithful to the covenant and we all declare that God is one.” And then he answered “Thank G-d! Praise the one whose glory fills all time and space –Baruch Shem Kevod Malchuto Le’olam Va’ed.” You probably recall that Jacob got his name changed to Israel when he wrestled with an angel. Rabbi Arthur Waskow famously translates Yisrael as “God-wrestler.”
Shema Yisrael: As Jacob-Israel’s heirs, we are bidden to see and hear, and then to struggle mightily on God’s behalf to make a better world.
Words three and four: Adonai Eloheynu,
are usually translated, “The Lord is Our God.” But really, the meaning is much deeper. Start with Adonai. We say Adonai (“our Lord”), but that’s really just a substitute word for the original four letter name of God from the Torah: Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey, a name tradition says is too holy for us to pronounce. It’s not about a childish image of an old man in the sky. The four letter Divine name could mean: “I will be what I will be” – all tenses past-present-future – undefinable – the awesome ungraspable life force that fills and creates our world without ceasing. And at the same time, those four letters Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey are intimate. In ancient times, the vav was pronounced like a “W,” as it still is in Yemenite Hebrew. So it’s Yud – Hey – Wav – Hey.
Breathing in and out through your mouth, you can hear the sounds
(as you breathe in)
(as you breathe out)
They are the sounds of breathing, especially when we pronounce the Vav as a Wav, as it was in ancient times. Y-H-W-H. Rabbi Arthur Waskow calls the Four Letter Name of God, “the Breath of Life.”
And then, Eloheynu, Our God, “Our Elohim.”
In Biblical Hebrew, Elohim can mean both God and Judge. In mystical thought, Elohim can mean the immanent God, that experience of divinity we sense close to us, filling our world and all of nature, the Shechinah. Jewish mystics pointed out that in Gematria, Hebrew numerology, Elohim is equivalent to Ha-Teva, nature.
Word Five: We come back to Adonai: YHWH, the paradox of God, utterly transcendent and beyond us, yet as close as our breath, our life spirit…
and this time we affirm:
God is ONE: Echad! Which can mean there is only one God. It can also mean that God is totally unique. And it implies: God is a Unity and therefore we are all part of a great Unity. Ultimately all of us are one, all connected. “One, every single one, each one joined and united in the One.”
So Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheynu, Adonai Echad: Hear O Israel, the Lord is Our God, the Lord is One, can be understood more fully: Listen and see, you wrestlers for God! YHWH, the indefinable, transcendent, divine life force –that’s our God! This is our ultimate measure, the only thing that can we judge life by. And that same, un-namable God, that breath of all life—is ONE, is a unity, and therefore nothing is outside it and we are all part of a whole!”
Or to make it simpler, we can just say: Hashtag #essence of Judaism in six words.
So think now, if we would truly live our lives bearing witness to the meaning of the Shema, the essence of our faith, what would that mean every day:
To really listen, To really see,
To declare for all the world that the mystery of creation fills everything and all,
And that ultimately we are all one in the one!
How would that change how we deal with:
People who look different? Have different opinions? The needy, the poor, the immigrant? The person we walk by on the street? How would it change how we regard: Endangered species? Trees and bird and animals? Our whole world?
One thing that really opened the Shema for me was learning this simple but powerful Shema exercise from my teacher, Reb Zalman. In this exercise, you say that first line of the Shema five times, each time addressing it to someone else.
First: The traditional way, imagining as if you are hearing Moses say the Shema for the first time. He said God’s actual name of the YHWH, but since we no longer pronounce that aloud, you could say “Adonai,” or “Yah.” …
Now proclaim the Shema to yourself, to your own name, Hebrew or English. For example: “Shema Julie!: Or “Shema Yehudit Tovah!
Now offer the Shema to someone else, someone you want to hear this essential message, to one person or a group. Like: “Shema, my grandchildren,” or “Shema, leaders of the world…”
Think for a moment who needs the message. …
Now back to the traditional words, but this time as if it’s your last Shema, like you are pouring out your soul. We can think of all the Jews who said these words word with their last breath, and join with them.
Finally, once more, say the Shema, this time with all the intentions held together. . . .
Baruch Shem Kevod Malchuto Le’olam Va’ed! “Through time and space, your glory shines, Majestic One.” (Reb Zalman’s Translation).
When you say it at home before bed, or you say it in Shul (synagogue) on Shabbat or shouted out at the end of Yom Kippur, remember these six words bear witness to the essence of our faith. May we merit not only to say them but to live by them: to listen and wrestle and affirm the unity behind all diversity.
May it be so! Amen.
Here is a beautiful video by Rabbi Lizzi Heydemann to learn more:
Happy Tu Bishvat, the Jewish New Year of Trees! (the 15th of the Hebrew month of Shevat, corresponding to January 17 this year)
Sunlight through the Mist, Julie Danan
Visit Wellsprings’ Gateway of Treesfor Pathways (posts) with teachings and resources including all about Tu Bishvat, as well as music, nature sights and sounds, ancient stories, videos, and a guided meditation for eating fruit. Learn about rainforests and the importance of planting trees in Jewish tradition.