“Sh’ma Yisrael – The Eternal One is our G-d, the Eternal is One.” In this week’s Torah portion, we encounter the Sh’ma – one line of Hebrew that is central to our faith and identity as Jews. Usually we focus on the statement of the unity of the Divine, but I would argue that that the rest of the sentence is equally powerful.
Sh’ma is usually translated as Listen or Hear – as if those two words were interchangeable. We can hear something, but not truly listen. The sh’ma asks us to pay attention, to engage in this moment with G-d. And once we are present – what does it tell us? The Eternal One is our G-d – the G-d of ALL of Israel. I remember during my first year of cantorial studies in Jerusalem being struck by this line. We are so ready to factionalize – this one is Conservative, that one Reform. This is my synagogue, and that is the one in which I would never set foot. But the Sh’ma says – no. Adonai is all of our G-d. We share this as Jews, no matter how differently we dress or pray.
The next phrase tells us that we are monotheists, that we believe in one G-d. This concept can serve to divide us because if one Jew personifies G-d as an old man with a white beard and another understands G-d as a feminine presence, and still another believes that there is a unifying force in the universe, but that it is incorrect to place human attributes on that force – can we all be Jews? Can we all be right? Can these all exist and there still be one G-d?
When I discuss this with my students, I ask them a question – how many of me are there? They answer – one. When my mother looks at me, who does she see? Her daughter. When my son looks at me, who does he see? His mother. Is my relationship with my mother the same as my relationship with my son? It is possible for us all to have extremely different relationships with and understandings of G-d, and for G-d to still be ONE.
The three phrases of the Sh’ma teach us three things about being Jews – 1. that we must listen, be present and aware, 2. that we are one community, no matter how different we may seem, and 3. that we all have different relationships and perceptions of the one G-d that we share. In bringing these three together, we too can become ECHAD – ONE.
Cantor Sally Neff