Shema: Listening, Hearing and the Shofar

Rosh Hashanah 5783, Day 2

The word, “Shema.” What do you think of when you hear it?

Usually, we think of “The Shema” as the verses we chant or sing from the book of Devarim, Deuteronomy, and in that context, it’s a bold theological statement. It is an idea which goes to the heart of what it means to be a Jew. Once called the watchword of our faith, the Shema traditionally is among the first words we utter in the morning upon waking and the last words we say at bedtime, and from ancient times, we are invited to make these six words the final words on our lips as we pass on from this world.

The Shema holds a power that is mystical. A story–and I’m getting this at least second hand, but it would be hard to make it up–is told about an incident at the San Diego airport. A police officer approached a woman and the four- or five-year-old girl standing beside her. The police officer said, “I am sorry to bother you, but a four-and-a-half year old girl has disappeared. The description given by her parents very much fits this girl – blonde, blue eyes, curly hair, wearing a red dress and black shoes. I don’t want to alarm you, but I am going to have to ask you some questions to prove that this little girl is really yours, that she isn’t the girl who is missing.”

Can you imagine? This woman had to prove that her daughter was really her daughter. Privately, the police officer asked the woman’s name, address, hometown and husband’s name. Then he said to the little girl, “What’s your name?” “Mary,” she answered. “What’s your last name?” Silence. “Well, where do you live?” “At home.” “Do you know the name of your city?” “Nope.” “What’s your father’s name?” he asked. “Daddy.” “What does he do?” “He goes to work.”

Not getting anywhere with the little girl, the police officer asked the woman if she had any pictures of the little girl in her wallet, or pictures of her husband that the little girl might recognize. She hadn’t any. He asked to see the plane tickets, but they were flying on standby, and besides, they had different last names.

So what would you do? How would you prove that your child is actually your child, and not someone else’s child whom you’ve kidnapped? Or worse, that your missing child is actually your child? Frightening, isn’t it?

Eventually, the mother offered the police officer a way to prove that the child was hers.

She said, “Rachel, tell the police officer what we say each night before we go to bed.” And little four-and-a-half-year-old Rachel answered, “Shema Yisrael Adonai Elohenu Adonai Echad.” And the mother smiled widely as the police officer confirmed that this is just what the mother predicted that little Rachel would answer.

It’s too late for my kids, who are 32 and almost 30, but if they ever do have kids, I’ll suggest that, even if they’re not into saying the Shema before bed with them, that they teach them some sort of something that can be useful in a situation like that. And to make sure they have photos in their wallet or on their phone!

What about the word, Shema, itself? In various grammatical forms and contexts it comes up a lot during these High Holy Days.

Yesterday, in the Torah reading, when Sarah tells Abraham to send Hagar and their son Ishmael away, Abraham is understandably distressed, but God tells him, kol asher tomar aylekha Sarah, shema b’kolah, “whatever Sarah tells to you, do as she says, or more literally, “listen to her voice,” “obey her.” It’s not often in our sacred writings that the Holy One tells a man to listen to a woman, so score one for that!

In yesterday’s haftarah from the book of Samuel, as Chanah is praying silently, the text tells us, rak sifate-ha na-ot, v’kolah, lo yishamay-ah, “her lips were moving but her voice wasn’t heard.”

These texts illustrate two of the ways that we can translate shema, as “listening,” or “hearing.” Abraham is told to listen to Sarah, And the biblical narrator is speaking about not hearing Chanah’s voice.

What about one of the most famous occurrences of this word, in the book of Exodus, once Moses has received and shared the Aseret haDibrot, the 10 Utterances? as the time for the Revelation at Sinai approaches?

וַיִּקַּח֙ סֵ֣פֶר הַבְּרִ֔ית וַיִּקְרָ֖א בְּאׇזְנֵ֣י הָעָ֑ם וַיֹּ֣אמְר֔וּ כֹּ֛ל אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֥ר יְה נַעֲשֶׂ֥ה וְנִשְׁמָֽע׃

va-yikach sefer ha-brit va-yikra b’oznei ha-am vayomru, kol asher diber Ado-nai na-aseh v’nishmah; 

“Then he took the record of the covenant and read it aloud to the people. And they said, “All Adonai has spoken we will do and we will hear, or understand!” We might think it should be the other way around, hear or understand first and then do, but words in the Torah aren’t the way they are by accident, at least according to our sages. A 16th century commentator, Ovadia ben Yaakov S’forno, understands na-aseh v’nishma, as “a reference to action designed to ensure that they could obey God’s directives without thought of any reward that might be in store for them by doing this.”

When we recite the Shema, especially the second paragraph that speaks of the rewards of obeying the commandments and the punishments if we don’t, we might feel troubled by the idea of Divine justice, which certainly permeates our liturgy on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. But just like we live our everyday lives, there are times when we’re absolutely doing something to score brownie points, or mitzvah points, to earn a salary or for some sort of tangible reward, there are also times when we do things without the expectation of any reward. By agreeing to follow the commandments without fully understanding them means that we’ll do the right thing regardless of a potential reward, at least one that we can strive for. Does this mean blind faith? Not at all. It means being a mensch.

The word shema! Can be an imperative, or it can be a suggestion. It can also be a commandment. Yesterday and today, before Carl so beautifully blew the shofar, he recited the blessing which ends, vitzivanu, lishmoa kol shofar, who has commanded us to hear the voice of the shofar. We’re not commanded to blow the shofar; our rabbis of old understood that not everyone would be capable of doing that, but just about everyone could hear it. While someone who is profoundly deaf may be halachically exempt from the commandment, innovative synagogues serving the deaf Jewish community have come up with ways to help with experiencing the shofar, such as using ASL, balloons that inflate with vibrations, and having people place their hands in a way where they can feel the vibrations from the shofar.

Rosh Hashanah is called yom teruah, and yom zikhron teruah in the Torah, which is one of the reasons we blow the shofar. Another connection is the story we read today, the Binding of Isaac. When Abraham sees the ram caught in the thicket, he sacrifices it in place of his son Isaac, and while the text never tells us that Abraham blew the ram’s horn, it’s a symbol that Abraham listened to God telling him to take Isaac up the mountain, and to God’s messenger telling him to take him down.

Shema! May we be blessed to hear the sound of the shofar not just in synagogue, but in our hearts and minds, as we heed its call, and as we use it as an instrument to call out to the Divine, the Holy One of Blessing, asking that God shema kolaynu, hear our prayer.

Thank you to Rabbi Paul Kipnes of Congregation Or Ami for his sharing and inspiration.

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