Yom Kippur Morning 5773
Temple Sinai, Reno, NV
We arrive this morning, in my sermon series on “The Shema and its Blessings,” at the heart of this opening section of our prayer book, that is the Shema itself. This is a prayer that we all know well.
Or do we? I’m guessing that when I refer to the Shema, most of you are thinking “Hear O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is One.” Indeed, this line functions very much as the centerpiece of our Jewish prayer service, for it encapsulates the monotheistic essence of our Jewish religion. Hence, parents teach their children to say these words before going to sleep at night. Others will invoke them first thing in the morning. It is even traditional for Jews to utter this Shema verse as their last, dying words. And by way of Rabbi Akiba – who spoke these words when he was tortured to death under Roman persecution – this verse has also become something of a martyr’s creed.
Yet “Hear O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is One” is only the opening line of a much longer prayer, not all of which has been retained in our Reform liturgy.
In its technical, full liturgical sense, the Shema is actually composed of three paragraphs. The first of these is the “Hear O Israel” verse –which we know so well – as well as what we call the V’Ahavta: “You shall love Adonai your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might” and so forth. All of these verses come from Deuteronomy, chapter 6.
But there is a second section of the Shema, which is also from Deuteronomy – this time, chapter 11. This portion of Deuteronomy – which is 9 verses long — has, as its theme, the acceptance of the yoke of commandments. It maintains that if the Jewish people heed the divine commandments, God will – in turn – cause rain to fall and the land to flourish and so on. Conversely, failing to follow the mitzvot will yield the opposite – that is no rain and no produce – which ultimately means we perish.
Reform prayer books omit this second section of the Shema, since our movement was born out of a rejection to being literally yoked to mitzvot. We furthermore eschew the cause and effect sort of theology that these verses promote. Even though contemporary Reform is much more open to the acceptance of mitzvot, such acceptance is, for us, a matter of choice. And if we choose the commandments, they are a religious guide and not binding law. So this entire second paragraph of the Shema still does not appear even in our most recent – and in some ways more traditional – Reform prayer book, Mishkan T’filah.
The third section of the Shema is from Numbers, chapter 15, and quotes God’s injunction to the children of Israel to make fringes on the corners of their garments. These tzitzit, or fringes, can be found on the corners of a tallit or on those undergarments whose fringes that you may see sticking out from below the shirts of Orthodox Jewish men.
This third section of the Shema was also removed from early Reform siddurim, or prayer books, because the founders of our movement were not interested in being identified by any particular manner of religious clothing. That has surely changed, as many of us – who choose to wear a tallit for worship — well know. And so in our most recent Reform prayer book, in Mishkan T’filah, this paragraph on fringes has returned as an option. And even if we don’t often read that particular re-inserted option, what we do read – and what was not removed even from earlier Reform siddurim – is the very end of this third section of the Shema, which begins L’maan tizk’ru vaasitem et kol mitzvotai . . . – “Thus shall you remember to observe all my commandments and be holy to your God.” We, however, read these verses as though appended to the V’Ahavta rather than as the closing line of this third Shema paragraph on tzitzit, which is where – in context – these verses really are.
Long version or short, it is probably a surprise to most of us to learn that the Shema was of no particular significance within the Hebrew Bible. In fact, the “Hear O Israel” introduction is a typical opening for a speech in Deuteronomy, and it occurs in several other places in that biblical book. Our “Hear O Israel” Shema didn’t rise to prominence until the early post-biblical period, and we know that from some manuscripts of the time. And of course, the various sections of the full Shema are not at all connected, in the Bible. In fact, in our prayer they’re not even in biblical order, since the Deuteronomic material precedes verses from Numbers. The full Shema prayer, then, is clearly a rabbinic creation.
Why, then, did the rabbis weave this prayer together as they did? Well, they tell us explicitly why in the Talmud. In tractate Berachot, they make it clear that they see these paragraphs as articulating the heart of Jewish faith. The first paragraph proclaims the sovereignty of God. The second, the duty to obey the commandments . . . with the third paragraph simply making that a bit more specific. Judaism, for the rabbis, is about God and God’s commandments; and all of that is nicely articulated in this one prayer bundle.
And with that, I could simply end this sermon. Shema Yisrael calls upon us, no matter what our notion of God, to “listen up” to what God requires of us. And since the Hebrew word Shema is much more than just about simple auditory function – since Shema means to actually pay attention and understand as well – then even the atheists among us are called upon, by the Shema, to at least wrestle with the notion of God belief. And then we are urged to put into action whatever we understand it is that God requires of us. We’re to love God fully and at all times and in every place. And we do so by deeds, that is mitzvot – even if, as Reform Jews, our acceptance of mitzvot is done selectively and with modern updating. This is what the Shema teaches. End of sermon.
But I’m not quite ready to end this sermon that way. Rather, I think that the Shema is the center of our Jewish faith in a way perhaps a bit more sophisticated. Among us in this sanctuary, there surely is all manner of theology – from the most traditional to the most doubtful. But even with all that diversity, I believe that all of us hold something as Ultimate. There is some supreme being or concept or something-or-other around which we form, and from which we derive, ultimate meaning. I don’t think that any of us would be here this morning were that not so. And so every time we say Adonai echad, I hear that as a challenge to every one of us to give thought to What or Whom it is that we hold sacred. And while we’re doing that, ask yourself who-or-what the false gods are that sometimes creep into your life and start messing around with its narrative of real meaning. As unsure as we may be of the true God, I suspect we all know an idol when we see one. Whether it’s money and “stuff” or pressures that we allow to estrange us from one another or ambition that overshadows our true values or . . . Shema Yisrael. “Listen up,” all of us. There’s something more. Much, much more . . .
And then, V’ahavta. Whatever our theological wrestlings, we know that our Highest must be lived. At home, at work, when we lie down, when we rise up . . . everywhere, all the time, and in every way we can. If we didn’t know this, what sense would our Yom Kippur atonement make? We know there’s a sacred center to living rightly. We know we don’t always measure up. Which is why we are here, affirming our commitment to do better.
And even if we disavow traditional Jewish mitzvot and/or their binding legal nature, we do understand that faith shows up in the real world. Genuine faith places some manner of obligations upon us. “Hear O Israel” isn’t a matter of convenience . We’ll listen up when it suits us . . . or we have time . . . or if it’s not too hard. However non-literally we are commanded, we do have obligations. And how we live out those obligations is the ongoing task of our Jewish lives.
Whatever else we believe, we all surely know – especially at this time of year – that there is some sacred Unity at the heart of who we are – or should be. We may not all believe in precisely the same name or definition of that Unity. We will surely understand its call and requirements differently. But that there is some Sacred Center . . . that some unified Holiness makes demands upon us . . . that we must continue to reach for Whatever or Whomever that Unity is . . . surely this is without argument.
Shema Yisrael. “Hear O Israel.” Not just at this most sacred time of year, but always.
There really is no prayer more central. No call more compelling.
As the gates of Yom Kippur draw ever nearer to a close, let us heed these words and verses of Torah gone famous. Let us hear – Shema – that we may truly live.