August 3, 2006
Are You Listening?
Parshat Vaetchanan (Deuteronomy 3:23 - 7:11)
"What's the most important word in the prayer book?" the rabbi asked the congregation.
The congregants responded with a list of important words: "shalom -- peace," "bracha -- blessing," "Torah -- God's truth," "Hashem -- God's name."
"All very important words," the rabbi replied. "But there is one more important. The prayer book's most important word is, "al-ken -- therefore."
"Therefore" connects all our fine sentiments and deep wisdom with the reality of the world. "Therefore" binds us to bring our values out of the vague realm of our subjectivity and into the hard objective world of work, family, politics and power. "Therefore" tests all our spiritual aspirations and visions against the limits of our courage, imagination and resolve. "Therefore" makes religion real. Every day, someone confesses, "Rabbi, I'm a deeply spiritual person."
Good, I reply. Where's the "therefore"? What difference does it make? How does your spirituality shape the way you spend your money, speak to your housekeeper, raise your children? Do you vote spiritually? Drive spiritually? Watch TV spiritually? I am little impressed by those who profess to believe in God. I am moved by those whose faith is behaved. That's my "therefore" test.
This week we read the stirring declaration of Jewish monotheism, Shema Yisrael. The most sacred words in our tradition, the Shema is the first affirmation a Jewish child is taught, and the last words on a dying Jew's lips. Even the Shema must be subjected to the test of "therefore." To do so, I suggest we read the Shema backward. And read it, not as a declaration, but as a set of questions. "Write them upon the doorposts of your house...." Read your house! What values are written on the walls of your home? If someone visited your home, what would they learn of you from the art on your walls, the books on your shelves, the notices tacked to your refrigerator?
"Tie them as a sign on your arm and between your eyes." Read your work! To what purposes and ends do you invest your bodily and mental energies? What do you spend your time and strength doing? What energizes you? What exhausts you? What renews you?
"Speak of them, at home and away, morning and night...." Read your words! What do you talk about? What concerns dominate your conversations and dialogues? With what tone of voice do you address the world? With what voice do you speak to those who share your home, your work, your neighborhood?
"Teach them to your children." Read your kids! What have you taught your children? What have you taught them about success, about the purpose and meaning of life? What have you shown them matters most to you -- the pursuit of prosperity or the practice of compassion? The acquisition of precious things or the sanctification of precious moments?
"These words ... take them to heart." Read your heart! What preoccupies your thoughts? What do you worry about? What do you dream about? What do you hope for?
"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, your soul and your might." The theologian Paul Tillich observed that every person, believer or nonbeliever, has a "god." Our God, he taught, is the "object of our ultimate concern." So the Shema asks us: What do you love most in life? What is your god? The answer is no mystery. Just look back at the answers to all the other questions. The values and concerns that decorate your home, drive your work, color your words, shape your children and animate your thoughts, those values constitute your ultimate concerns. So what do you worship? What is your god? What sacrifices does your god demand?
"Hear O Israel...." Are you listening? Are you paying attention to your own choices? Are you conscious of the patterns of your life?
"Hear O Israel...." Are you listening to the voice of your soul, your deepest ideals and principles? Can you open your ears to hear a voice calling you to a life lived differently?
For those of deep faith, the Shema is an affirmation and declaration of loyalty to God. For those of us who struggle with the "Therefore" - with the task of bringing faith into life, it is an unrelenting challenge. Shema for us is God's most powerful question.
Ed Feinstein is senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino. He serves on the faculty of the Ziegler Rabbinical School of the University of Judaism, the Wexner Heritage Foundation, the Whizen Center for the Jewish Family and the Synagogue 3000 initiative.