Shedding Some Light on the Shema


Commentary on Parshat Vayehi: Genesis 47:28-50:26

Try this if you are a Jewish parent.  Teach your child to recite the Shema to you, but instead of the word “Yisrael”, have them read your name instead.  Say  that your name is David.  So your child should say to you, ” Shema David, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad.


Does this sound preposterous?  Actually, there is a basis for this practice in Jewish tradition.



The Shema Yisrael passage is a central passage in Jewish tradition.  The text, “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One”  is found in the Torah in the Book of Deuteronomy 6:4.  Rabbinic tradition understood the recitation of the passage as a Mitzvah — a commandment to be done by a Jewish adult twice a day.  The passage made its way to the core of the Jewish prayer book.  Over the generations, Jewish children associated the Shema with bedtime as parents recited these words lovingly before bedtime in the “Shema At Bedside” ritual (Shema Al Hamitah).


According to a Midrash (a rabbinic commentary) on this week’s portion, Vayehi, the original recitation of the Shema took place at the deathbed  of Jacob, the patriarch..  Jacob’s sons, who are  reunited in Egypt with their brother Joseph, gather around his bedside and pronounce the Shema.  Yisrael is Jacob’s other name, the name he was given after wrestling with God’s angel (Genesis 32).  The Midrash suggests that the sons of Jacob who had been driven by sibling hatred and plotting had come together in unity and said to him,  “Hear Yisrael, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.”


As the Midrash sees it, this original recitation of the Shema was directed at Jacob by his sons to assure him that all his children recognized that they shared the same God and that this God was One.  In saying this they included themselves in the ancestral covenant (Brit) first made with Abraham, their great grandfather.  In the previous two generations, there had been a terrible sibling rivalry in which only one sibling would inherit the Covenant of Abraham.  But in reciting the Shema the sons wanted to convey to their father that the Covevenant would continue with them.  This gave him comfort.


Jewish tradition engages parents to teach their children the Shema to convey a love of God and a loyalty to the Jewish tradition.  Yet we have another tradition that children should recite the Shema to parents as an assurance of their embrace of the Brit-the covenant and their commitment to living within the Covenant, living their lives as Jews.


This Midrash presents challenges for our times, when we struggle to figure out our Jewish identities, and as we often share mixed identities within our families.  In today’s world, I distinguish between two types of Jewish identities:  an identity of legacy and identity of purpose.   The identity of legacy builds on the fact that “I am Jewish because my parents, grandparents, and ancestors were Jewish.  They have handed me a legacy.”  The identity of purpose is embodied in the belief that  “I live my Jewish life with purpose based on the highest values and commitments that Jews  have carried from generation to generation. “ This is true even whether or not I received them from my parents or not.


My view is the Jewish identity of purpose is more crucial in our times than the identity of legacy.  I say this because to identify as a Jew based on the purpose of being Jewish demands that we engage with the teachings of our tradition and their relevance for our lives.   Jewish tradition comes alive through study and interaction with the tradition.


The identity of legacy by itself is admirable and builds on our loyalty to our ancestors, but in the age of the great mixing of identities we will have multiple ancestors and multiple paths will lie before us.   Judaism will have to be meaningful to our children, not just for what their parents or grandparents did, but also by how we engage its teachings and apply them to our lives and our world.


It is not preposterous to teach our children to say the Shema to us only if we work hard to make Judaism meaningful to them and ourselves.  It won’t suffice anymore to shout “Tradition” like Tevya does in “Fiddler on the Roof”.  It is when our children find meaning in Judaism that they will freely say Shema to us and even thank us for starting them on the great journey of inspiration and understanding that is the way of Torah — the way of Judaism.

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