Thursday, August 18, 2016

Shema Yisroel

In this week's Torah portion we read  Shema Yisroel so I've reposted the article I wrote for my father's yahrzeit five years ago. 

courtesy of mennashedovid1.wordpress

My father grew up in a small village in Germany. All of the twenty Jewish families living there were observant. They took turns chopping wood to heat the mikvah. They set their cholents on the fire before the onset of Shabbat. And they took their cattle to be slaughtered in the nearby village where the shochet lived.
My mother grew up in a small town in Kansas. Most of the twenty Jewish families went to the Reform temple there. Their observances varied but marrying out was not uncommon. For my mother, though, being Jewish, staying Jewish, and raising a Jewish family was important.

When he came to America, my father left many of his observances on the other side of the ocean. Still, like my mother, it was important to him to be Jewish, stay Jewish, and raise a Jewish family. Once married, they did not follow the paths of observance they had had in their childhood homes. Rather they made their own, unique path.
They would not be shomer Shabbat, but my mother would light Shabbat candles and they would drive to services at the Reform temple. They would not keep kosher, but there would be no pork in the house. They would acknowledge Jewish holidays and not celebrate the Christian ones.
Although there was no question that I would be sent to weekly religious school, my parents did not wait for me to become school age to begin my Jewish education. From the time I could talk I was taught to say Shema Yisroel, first in Hebrew and then in English, and the Vahavta only in English, as they tucked me into bed each night. It was a lot of words but I learned it by rote and probably understood little of what I was saying, even in English.
When I began religious school I was taught that Shema Yisroel was the watchword of our faith. As a six-year-old I don’t think I really understood what that meant. I did know that Shema Yisroel was important. Then, as a university student, I started becoming observant. I dropped the English part of the Shema, added  Baruch Shem K’vod Malchuto Le’olom Va’ed, and began saying Vahavta in Hebrew every night.  However, there was something about those first seven words, Shema Yisroel, HaShem Elokanu, HaShem Ehad that eluded me. If they were the “watchword of our faith” there must be a deeper meaning to them.
It was the first year I was married that I learned the Midrash about Yaacov Avinu on his deathbed with his sons surrounding him. Yaacov wanted to reveal to them the date of the final redemption, but the Almighty did not want it revealed. Instead, He removed the power of prophecy from Yaacov at that moment. Worried, Yaacov thought that the shechina had departed because one of his sons did not believe wholeheartedly in HaShem. All twelve of them reassured him with words of the Shema: Here Yisroel, (Yisroel being Yaakov’s second name) the Lord, our G-d, the Lord is one. With thankfulness Yaacov whispered: Blessed is the Name of His glorious kingdom forever and ever.
It was a beautiful Midrash. Yet I couldn’t help but feel there was a deeper meaning that was still eluding me. The written source for Shema Yisroel is in Deuteronomy, Parsha Va’etchanan, the portion that Moshe begs to be allowed to enter the Land of Israel. He is denied but he does repeat the Ten Commandments and teaches the Jewish people the Shema. Commentators state that this is the foundation of Torah, the belief in one G-d, not too far off from my religious school teacher’s “watchword of our faith” explanation.
Still, I kept searching for a deeper meaning. There was the stirring story of Rabbi Akiva’s death as a martyr with the words of Shema Yisroel on his lips. I knew those were the words one should say before dying. With more delving I was taught that the last letter of Shema and the last letter of Ehad combined to make the word עד, in English witness. As a Jew my life should be lived as a witness to G-d’s oneness. That spoke to me.
By this time I was living with my husband and children in Israel. My mother had died and my father was living alone when he was diagnosed with cancer. The doctor gave him two to three months to live. He agreed to come live with us and those two to three months stretched to almost a year, a very special year for all of us.
The last six days of his life were spent in the hospice unit at Hadassah Hospital. It was very early Sunday morning when I entered his room on what would be the day before he died. To my consternation, he seemed oblivious to my presence and was talking away in German. My knowledge of his first language was pathetic and I panicked. I called a neighbor who had come from a German speaking home but he was not home. I began asking the staff if anyone knew German, or even Yiddish, but no one did. The social worker tried to reassure me.
“I know my father is going to die soon,” I told her calmly, “and I’m prepared.”
At that moment my father stopped rambling in German and switched to Hebrew.
Shema Yisroel, HaShem Elokanu, HaShem Ehad”
Tears poured down my face and I smiled sheepishly at the social worker.
“I guess I’m not as ready as I thought.”
In the course of the day my father repeated the watchword of our faith at least a half a dozen times. He was ready. With each recital of the foundation of our Torah we, his family, became more and more accepting of his coming death.
We miss him. This month is his fourth yahrzeit. My father was a kind loving man who gave much. Perhaps one of his biggest gifts to me was the ability to finally understand Shema Yisroel, HaShem Elokanu, HaShem Ehad. It is really quite simple. By reciting it I am affirming that I am part of the Jewish people and that I believe that there is one G-d who created the world. May I live my life as witnesses to that oneness.
Shema Yisroel: Hear, Israel
Mikvah: ritual bath
Cholent: Shabbat stew
Shochet: ritual butcher
Shomer Shabbat: Sabbath observant according to Jewish law
Baruch Shem K’vod Malchuto Le’olom Va’ed:  Blessed is the Name of His glorious kingdom forever and ever
Vahavta: commandment to love
Shechina: divine prescence 
Midrash: part of the oral Torah
Avinu: our father
Parsha: Torah portion
Va’etchanan: And I pleaded
Ehad: one
Yahrzeit: anniversary of death

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