Listening to the Sh'ma (V'etchanan)

Sh'ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad - Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.


Our second portion of Deuteronomy, V'ethanan, contains this statement of belief. It is perhaps the best-known verse in the entirety of Torah. It's also powerful in that this declaration of faith is both in our Torah and our liturgy. Observant Jews chant this so-called watchword of our faith three times a day. It has been known to be the last utterance said by many Jewish martyrs.

The verse is simple. Deceptively so.

The Sh'ma seems to mean that all of us should pay special attention and concern to the fact that Adonai is our God, and that there is only one God.

For us this may seem obvious ... but we must remember that monotheism was a theological revolution. Even our rabbinic commentators note this when they teach us about Abraham. Abraham was picked as the first Jew because he was the first to realize that there was one God of everything - not a God of weather and a God of sickness and a God of war - but one God. Many of us know the famous midrash of Abraham destroying his father's idols, showing a break from the tradition of polytheism and the start of something new - a new religion.

And so, we repeat this dictum to ourselves to remind ourselves of the importance that there is one God, and only one God. Scholars have commented that monotheism gives rise to a certain kind of structured morality, as we're not able to argue that this God desires one thing and this God demands something entirely different. In Judaism, there is one God, and one standard of behavior.

This is what I'll call the 'simple' way of looking at this verse.

Here is another.

If we hearken back to Genesis, we recall the incident in which Jacob wrestled with God. Following this watershed event, God changes Jacob's name to Yisrael. Instead of reading Sh'ma Yisrael as Hey people of Israel, pay special attention to the next few words, we can instead understand the verse as taking place just before Jacob's death. His twelve sons surround his death-bed. After a lifetime of struggle and conflict, Jacobs' entire family is with him as he is on the cusp of eternal rest. In this understanding of the Sh'ma, the words are words that Jacob's sons say to their father. Sh'ma Yisrael - Listen, father ... everything is ok. Adonai is our God, and God is one.

There's one other interpretation of the Sh'ma. Instead of translating it to mean Listen, people of Israel, we can instead understand it to be a challenge: People of Israel ... Listen to each other!


Here we have one verse, and at least three valid interpretations and meanings.

This verse is of course a microcosm for the entirety of Torah; each verse can be like a tree trunk which takes root and then sprouts forth blossoms and branches and leaves that weave together in every direction, creating a forest of variety and beauty.

But if this is true of the written text of the Torah, then kal v'chomer - how much the more so - this is true for us as well.

We do need to learn to various interpretations of Torah and Talmud, text and tradition - this is an essential foundation of Judaism. But we also need to Sh'ma Yisrael - we must listen to each other to gain better knowledge and perspective about our lives, to learn from each other. As I teach in Tot Shabbat, we have one mouth, but two ears. We must listen.


I sent an email on Monday evening regarding the commemoration of Tisha B'av, the day in which we mournfully remember the destruction of the Temple. Our rabbis teach us that the destruction was caused by sinat chinam, baseless hatred amongst our own people.

The act of listening is a religious act. We must listen to our Torah. We must also listen to the varied and amazing interpretations of that Torah. Tonight, we have three interpretations that will help us strengthen our faith and strengthen our understanding and love of one another.


Sh'ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad.

Preparing to Become Ourselves

Words About Words (D'varim)