11 Av 5762
I am proud and happy to stand here today as the new president of BEKI. I want to congratulate all the Board members and thank them for the time and energy they have agreed to give, so that this synagogue can function. I also want to thank the families of our Board members, because they are being asked to make sacrifices, too. BEKI thrives because of its volunteers, on and off the Board, and together we are a great deal more than the sum of our parts. We are an extended family, a community of friends, a support network, a qehilat qodesh.
VaEthanan, the portion of the week, is one of the richest and most interesting in the Torah. Many familiar lines have entered the prayerbook and the hagada: ve-atem hadveqim ba-Adonai; ve-yada`ta ha-yom ve-hashivota el le-vavekha; ve-zot ha-Tora asher sam Moshe.
The Ten Commandments, and the Shema and VeAhavta are all in this remarkable parasha.
I want to look at VaEthanan to see what it says about leadership and community, since that’s what’s on my mind today, as we celebrate our installation.
The very first word of the Torah reading offered me an insight: VaEthanan – usually translated, “I pleaded.” The root of the word is hen, hanan – “Hanan” is the Hebrew name of my youngest brother Andy, who lives in Alaska and whom I’ll be visiting in about a week. Hanan means grace, favor.
The verb is in a reflexive form: I got myself to ask for a favor. In my first few weeks as president of BEKI, I have already learned that a lot of synagogue leadership involves this very activity. Asking someone to do or to give something. This is not easy. I know that everyone is busy. Everyone has multiple claims on their limited resources. But BEKI is a do-it-yourself enterprise, as we all know. Luckily, that means that a lot of people are willing to pitch in, in a lot of different ways, and don’t wait to be asked. It was easy to pull off a successful silent auction at the Annual Meeting, and a wonderful morning of landscape work last Sunday.
In VaEthanan, we see that the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness were winding down, and although Moshe was eager to continue doing what he had done so well for so long, the time was coming for Joshua to take charge. Moses wasn’t the right man to lead the people into battle. A new era was about to begin. New leadership was taking over, with new objectives and a new style-but the same core values and the same shared history.
I’m not saying that I’m Joshua to Stephen Pincus’s Moses, but there is a modest parallel. What happens in the governance of a synagogue isn’t about any individual’s wishes or achievements. It’s about strengthening the community. It’s about balancing change and continuity, for the good of the institution and its members. As trustees of BEKI, we need to make sure that this congregation will continue long after our terms in office are over, and be stronger because of what we contributed.
As a congregation, we subscribe to certain enduring principles. Probably the central statement of our shared belief appears in this week’s parasha in six words, “Shema Yisrael, Adonai Elokeinu, Adonai Ehad.”
The Shema has been called the “Watchword of our Faith.” A distilled expression of monotheism, the Shema has taken on complexity and depth because of its uses through Jewish history. We put it in the mezuzot that consecrate our homes and identify them to the world as Jewish; we recite it morning and night in private, and during services. We sing it triumphantly when we take the Torah from the ark, and joyously in the qedusha section of the amida. The Shema closes the Neila service on Yom Kippur with dramatic repetition; it is the core of the deathbed confession and the heartbreaking cry of the martyr.
Strictly speaking, the Shema isn’t actually a prayer. It doesn’t praise God, or give thanks, or petition for anything. The first two words, “Shema Yisrael,” appear elsewhere in the Torah as a summons to “Listen up,” most often followed by a commandment or a warning. On this occasion, we have something different — a declaration of what we believe, a collective credo (Latin scholars: credamus).
The words can be translated different ways.
I grew up with: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” In this translation, the stress is on God’s one-ness, indivisibility.
More commonly used today is, “Hear O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai alone.” This version affirms two ideas — that we believe Adonai is God, and that God is unique.
Rashi wrote that Adonai Elokenu refers to now, and to the God of the Jewish people; and the second half refers to the end of days, when all the world will be united in worship of one God: “Ba-yom ha-hu, yehiye Adonai ehad u-shemo ehad — On that day, the Lord will be one, and His name one.”
According to a midrash on the Shema, God described His singularity this way: “My children, everything that I have created has been created in pairs: heaven and earth, the sun and the moon, Adam and Eve, this world and the world to come. But My glory is one and unique in the world, hence, Adonai Ecad, the Lord, alone.”
A lot of commentaries deal with the significance of the word, ehad. For a couple of minutes, I’d like to focus on another word in the Shema, and particularly on the grammatical form it takes. The word is “elokeinu,” our God.
Sometimes Moses uses the first person singular, as when he says “VaEthanan, I pleaded.” More often, he addresses the people, either directly or in the name of God, using the second person singular or plural, “you.” “Kabed et avikha ve-et imekha; Ve-ahavta et Adonai elokekha.” And, of course, a lot of the Torah is third person narration. But here we have the first person plural: our God.
So who or what do we mean when we say, “our God”?
I think it’s a safe bet that every one of us here in the sanctuary today conceives of God in a somewhat different way. My own beliefs have evolved over the years, beginning when I was a little girl with God as a wise, gray-bearded grandfather-in-the-sky, to the idea that God is Nature, to a version of the Reconstructionist concept of God as the power that makes for good in the world; in times of stress and sorrow, to the comforting Shekhina, to — I’m not sure what — some combination of these and other things, too, including, in times of doubt, how can we ever know if there is a God?
But I still say the Shema. When I say the Shema, I assert that I believe in something beyond myself that gives meaning to my life as a person and as a Jew. When we say the Shema as a congregation, we come together through the shared affirmation that we believe in something beyond ourselves, and as Jews, we subscribe to the mitzvot and values that derive from that something, from God, however we think of God. God is one, and we are one, through God. The Shema affirms our belief, and also affirms our community.
Marge Piercy’s recent collection of poems, The Art of Blessing the Day gives an interpretation of the Shema, that I find very moving, and expresses some of what I’ve been trying to say.
Hear, Israel, you are of God and God is one.
Praise the name that speaks us through all time.
So you shall love what is holy with all your courage, with all your passion
with all your strength.
Let the words that have come down
shine in our words and our actions.
We must teach our children to know and understand them.
We must speak about what is good
and holy within our homes
when we are working, when we are at play,
when we lie down and when we get up.
Let the work of our hands speak of goodness.
Let it run in our blood
and glow from our doors and windows.
We should love ourselves, for we are of God.
We should love our neighbors as ourselves.
We should love the stranger, for we
were once strangers in the land of Egypt
and have been strangers in all the lands of the world since.
Let love fill our hearts with its clear precious water.
Heaven and earth observe how we cherish or spoil our world.
Heaven and earth watch whether we choose life or choose death.
We must chose life so our children’s children may live.
Be quiet and listen to the still small
voice within that speaks in love.
Open to that voice, hear it, heed it and work for life.
Let us remember and strive to be good.
Let us remember to find what is holy within and without.
I would like to close with a few words about the woman who taught me to say the Shema, too many years ago to remember — my mother, Shulamit, who is here today from Florida with her loving and wonderful husband, my stepfather, Dr. Milton Lubarr.
When I was about eight years old, my mother went back to school to become a Hebrew teacher. Her studies, lesson plans, and thousands of India ink flashcards permeated my childhood. To improve her Hebrew, she took a job at Camp Ramah, near Moodus, Connecticut, in the 1950s, where she spent two summers signing out bed linens to visiting rabbonim from the JTS. Her knowledge and confidence grew, and she became camp mother in the Poconos Ramah, and later a, division head in the Canada camp. In all, because of her, I spent ten summers at one Ramah or another, as a camper and then as a dance counselor (obviously, I inhabited a different body then). Ramah formed my Jewish identity.
Over the years, my mother has taught hundreds and hundreds of kids in keta alef and bet to read Hebrew and value their heritage, and she did it with great enthusiasm and kindness. When she runs into former students or former Ramahniks, they remember her with love and gratitude. Now in her upper 80s, Shula is still teaching and giving lectures on Jewish topics, and Milton tells me she still holds her listeners in the palm of her hand.
You should know that when I was asked to take on the presidency of BEKI, a few months ago, my mother’s immediate and unequivocal response was, “No, don’t do it! Absolutely not. You already work too hard.” But her whole life taught me a different message, and so I took the advice given by her actions, not her words. I want to thank her today, for helping me become who I am.
See also Parashat Huqat-Balaq by Gila Reinstein
Email President Gila Reinstein at firstname.lastname@example.org