Seven Tryptichs on the Shema

The Rabbis juxtaposed the three separate paragraphs of the Shema, because they touched on so many themes and layers of meaning central to Judaism. Reading the Shema therefore enables us to fulfill the commandment to study Torah (Berachot 60b). For about a year and a half, I have studied the Shema closely, as well as reading commentaries and books on it, and have begun writing about it myself (read the results at Shema (Pt 1): Listen and Love and Shema (Pt 2): Love and Follow). These verses offer one of my meditations on different pathways of meaning through the three paragraphs, hearing different ways of folding them into one another, as in a triptych (three related pictures in connected frames). The permutations are limitless.

The reader is invited to use the footnotes to reflect on both the poem, and the Shema itself. I have, on the whole, avoided using the word ‘God’. We cannot create a single name that could encompass the infinite and unknowable attributes of what we would like that name to point towards. And yet it is very hard to use no word at all – hence the variety of names and adjectives that I have used here. (In another poem, I wrote: “Beyond names, beyond definitions, Yours and ours – That is where we shall meet You.”) A poem feels different when we hear it, and when we speak it – it helps us find the layers of meaning, and make the poem ours. I would encourage reading this out loud. So, the poem …

Listen
Teach
Remember

I1 am my Beloved’s2
We3 are our Beloved’s
The Beloved loves all4

The One is One
We must act as One5 6
We and the One will become One7

One reveals
One creates
One empowers8

One is
One does all
Each one is in the image of One9

Love –
Things will happen
God has spoken10 11

We are not alone12
We are not alone
We are not alone

Notes

[1] The first paragraph addresses ‘you’ in the singular, drawing attention to our personal relationship with the Divine, and ‘acceptance of the yoke of the kingdom of heaven’.

[2] The second blessing before the Shema (Ahavah rabba) has love as a central theme, and the Shema itself continues this, urging us first as individuals, and then collectively, to love the Great Beloved. The language in this second verse of the poem echoes the Song of Songs 6:3 – “I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is mine.”

[3] The second paragraph addresses the plural ‘you’, and our enactment of loyalty through the ethical life and ‘acceptance of the yoke of the commandments’.

[4] In the third paragraph, Rashi comments that ‘I am the Lord your God’ is an assertion that we are all ruled by the same Power, regardless of whether we acknowledge or serve that Power. The other side of this is that the Infinite Beloved has equal concern for everyone.

[5] Judaism teaches us about inter-dependence, and that individuals stand or fall together within a network of relationships; we must raise and hold each other up. Prayer can be a one-to-one communication with the Beloved, but, as AJ Heschel wrote, to pray as a Jew is to pray not “not as an I to a Thou, but as a We to a Thou.” (Man’s Quest for God, 1954)

[6] As representatives acting on behalf of ‘the One’, we must enact the principles of ethical monotheism, acting as we imagine ‘the One’ would act.

[7] Why in the third paragraph of the Shema should we remember the liberation from Egypt? One answer is that it can remind us to explore the nature of Divine compassion, and what role we can play in our own and others’ redemption. And an experience of redemption (emotionally-psychologically, socially-politically, relationally in terms of healing or forgiveness, ecologically) can enliven our sense of the holy and help bring humanity closer to Presence.

[8] The three Shema paragraphs can be understood as expressing three major Jewish themes of Revelation, Creation, and Redemption, which are echoed by the three blessings around the Shema (continuous Creation, Revelation of Torah and what we can learn from it in our own time as well, and past and future Redemption). The third paragraph stresses the importance of implementing the mitzvot and being “holy to God”. This must mean that our actions matter in some way, and that we can play a part in redemption.

[9] The Shema first affirms YHVH, I Am That I Am, Existence itself, making it clear that there is nothing else in the universe. Then it affirms the Power (the root of elohim) behind everything that happens and all that is done. The third paragraph refers both to our own responsibility in the world, and the Ruler-Redeemer. Genesis 1:26-27 tells us we are each made “in the image of God”. To be “holy to God”, our actions must be in the image of God’s actions.

[10] The Shema paragraphs (excluding the opening two lines of ‘Shema’ and ‘Baruch’) are sometimes referred to by their respective first words V’ahavta … v’hayah … vayomer. As I wrote this poem, I realized that the juxtaposition of these three ‘fragments’ seemed to produce a narrative of their own.

[11] It has been said that Love is central message of the Bible, that Love will be the transformative force for tikkun olam, the healing of the world, and ultimate redemption, both personal and collective. “Listen and love. There is nothing more we have to do. Nothing less we can do if we are to actualize our true nature as God’s Breath.” (Rami Shapiro, 2001, To listen and to love). Hillel found his own way of teaching this when he said: “That which is hateful to you, do not unto another: This is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary — [and now] go study.” The fact that God has spoken of love is not the end of the matter. The idea of study is integral to Hillel’s teaching – we are commanded to love, but to understand how to do that we must study, learn and practice.

[12] In creating the formula for the bracha (blessing), the Rabbis ingeniously condensed many crucial ideas into a few words: 1) YHVH, the name (based on the verb ‘to be’) told to Moses, reminds us that the divine force of Existence and Being is at the heart of everything, 2) eloheinu, uses the word ‘our’, introducing the concepts of the community’s horizontal relationships (with each other) and vertical, collective relationship with its Heavenly King, 3) melech haolam reminds us that the omnipotent force is like a benevolent, protective king, 4) asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu tells us we are both sanctified/blessed, and under obligation. These ideas form the invisible subtext of the seventh and final verse of this poem; the same wording means something different each time. The first line tells that there is a single infinite, benevolent, all-encompassing power, placing us in a fundamentally different relationship to the universe than if this were not so. The second line tells us that we live in a network of relationships and inter-dependence with other humans and the planet – which brings vulnerability and responsibility. The close of the Shema refers to both YHVH (the compassionate aspect of God), and elohim (the judge aspect). The third line of this last verse of the poem is ambiguous, telling us that we are watched over by a Redeemer-Judge – which is simultaneously reassuring and terrifying.

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