Parashat Va-Etchannan (3rd portion in triennial cycle)

D=varim 5:1 - 7:11

(Plaut 1354-78; Etz Hayim 1015-31; Hertz 765-76)


David B. Brooks

Prepared for Or ha-Neshamah

(Ottawa, Canada: 24 July 2010)


Parashat Va-Etchannan is described in the Chumash, Etz Hayim, as Aincomparably rich@ (1005). Even the portion that we read in triennial cycle includes Moses= repetition of the Ten Commandments, the concept of a chosen people, some verses that are said every day in the morning and evening service, and that most important of all Jewish prayers, the Sh'ma (Dv 6:4). Why do I say it is the most important? For one reason, the Talmud opens by discussing when to say the Sh'ma. It is also the last prayer one says before falling asleep. The Sh=ma is the only prayer for which total concentration is required, hence the practice of covering our eyes during its recitation. Further B may it never apply to any of us B the Sh=ma is the prayer that martyrs say before they die. Rabbi Plaut calls it the Awatchword@ of our faith (1369), and says the words Aenshrine Judaism=s greatest contribution to the religious thought of mankind (920).


There is of course an enormous body of commentary on the six apparently simple Hebrew words that appear in Chapter 6, verse 4 of Devarim (Deuteronomy):

$(! %&%* &1*%-! %&%* -!9:* 3/:

translated by both the Plaut (Reform) and Etz Hayim (Conservative) Chumash as, Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord Alone. I say Asix words@ in the prayer, but the great bulk of commentary is on the last four words, AAdenoy Elohainu Adenoy Echad,@ and it is on those four that the remainder of my d=var will focus.[1]


Despite my wording to now, and despite the statement in Etz Hayim (1024) that the Sh=ma is Athe quintessential Jewish prayer,@ it is not really a prayer at all. Prayers are addressed to God; the Sh=ma is addressed to other Jews. Moreover, the Sh=ma serves none of the three functions of prayer; it is not praise of God, not thanks to God, not a plea for something from God. Rather, it is an affirmation of Jewish faith. I emphasize AJewish@ because it is not, or at least not only, a generalized affirmation of monotheism. The principle of monotheism has already been firmly stated in Dv. 4:35 (see also 4:39): AIt has been clearly demonstrated to you that the Lord alone is God; there is none beside Him.@ To quote Rabbi Plaut (1366), AIn this translation of the Shema two affirmations are made: one, that the Divinity is Israel=s God, and two, that it is He alone and no one else.


(A digression: As a member of two egalitarian congregations, I try to avoid gendered language when talking about God. However, as a researcher, I cannot bring myself to alter quotations, and most of them use masculine pronouns when referring to God.)


Getting back to the subject, if Plaut says that the Sh=ma contains two affirmations, Etz Hayim ups the ante by one; it finds three affirmations in the wording (1025): God is not none; God is not two; and God is not many!


Evidently, the meaning of the Sh=ma is less obvious that most of us have seen. As Etz Hayim admits, AFor all of its familiarity, the precise meaning of the Sh=ma is uncertain.@ Plaut offers four translations that are grammatically possible for a phrase that has no verb or punctuation (1369). What a strange situation for words that may be said in any language precisely because Ait is crucial that the worshiper understand what he or she is affirming@ (Etz Hayim, 1024).


Knowing all that, nearly 25 years ago Eugene Borowitz, the dean of Reform rabbis, published Echad: the Many Meanings of God is One (Port Washington, NY: Sh'ma, Inc., 1988). The book has 25 chapters by his colleagues, each offering one perspective on the meaning of God is One. Rabbi Kushner, author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People, provides a good place to begin: How, he asks, can we even attribute "oneness" to a God that is beyond description. In his phrase (45), once we look deeply at Echad, we find ourselves in a Atheological 'double bind.@ If a physical attribute, we are blasphemous; if a philosophical essence, we are impossibly vague.


I am not going to go through 24 other commentaries on the Sh=ma. I will start with two that challenge the translation, and then go on to excerpts from a few others that have a distinctly modern flavour.


$    Harry Orlinsky[2] says that the wording is faulty because the Hebrew Bible was originally translated into Greek and Latin in a word-for-word manner for fear of altering anything that was believed to be the word of God. He insists that, if the verse means "the Lord is One," it begs to be asked, "One what?" Orlinsky goes on to say that Hebrew priests were vigilant to guard against inroads by polytheistic influences, especially as the Hebrew God not only excluded all other gods but "had all the attributes associated elsewhere by other peoples with the many gods they worshipped" (56) -- ie, gods of war, gods of rain, gods of love etc. Thus, for Orlinsky, the correct translation is: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.


$    David Sperling also challenges the translation but from quite a different perspective. He asks first why the Sh=ma is placed just before the ve'ahavtah commandment to love God. He also notes that, though Adonay Eloheinu works grammatically, Adonay Echad does not; it requires at least the pronoun "hu." Therefore, he suggests that what we have is a scribal error; we should not be reading the noun "one" but the verb "love" -- not aleph-het-dalet but aleph-hay-bet. He emphasizes that, in the context of Devarim, love is something that is commonly commanded between subject and master, minor king and major, etc. Therefore, for Sperling the correct translation should be: Adonay our God; Love Adonay. The ve'ahavtah then follows logically, and the Sh'ma "becomes a command to every Israelite rather than a credo" (85). (Chark: Sperling looks for diqduq rather than for meaning. Jewish liturgy is neither organised nor presented that way. The Shem Hamiforash (Yhvh) is an impossible verb, so Shma is an impossible verse, and so wherever Yhvh occurs.)


Here are few other shorter comments:

$    Marjorie Yudkin, in an essay entitled AThe Oneness that Allows for Otherness@ emphasizes the links between her feminism and our traditional masculine and hierarchical language, as follows (100):


Feminism has enabled me to expand my concept of God, by enriching my store of images for God. Even as my faith has been challenged by the teachings of feminism, the definition of God as One has grown to accommodate the challenges.


$    Michael Wyschogrod says that the essence of the Sh=ma is that it commands Jews to worship only this one God. Though most pagan gods did not mind the worship of other gods so long as their own needs were met, AThis is precisely what the God of Israel will not tolerate.@ (97) (Chark: Wyschogrod is not entirely correct: The sedra clearly says "When you look above and see the sun, the moon, the stars, do not prostrate before them -- this is for the other nations, it is their portion, but you are Mine...")


$    Aaron Jacob Wolf says that the ambiguous words of the Sh=ma reminds us that we don=t really know all that much about our God: AThe truth is that we do not know the truth about God.@ (92) All we know is what we are commanded to do.


$    Malcolm Stern notes the huge divisions within the Jewish community and says that the Sh=ma points to an ideal B AA God who is Ehad.@ (90)


$    Lawrence Hoffman suggests that we look at the Sh=ma not so much as a philosophi-cal statement as an artistic one, a vision of art that encompasses so much within a few brush strokes or words or sounds.


$    Leonard S. Kravitz says that the unity of God, as contained in Echad, implicitly refers to the unity of all humankind and all human conceptions, as well as Athe role of Israel as guardian of the notion of unity.@ (43)


And many more.


Let=s bring this d=var to a close, as I like to, with a lighter point. If one looks closely at the Hebrew text for verse 6:4, the ayin, which is the last letter of the first word, and the dalet, which is the last letter of the last word, are in a larger font (if in a book) or larger script (if in a sefer Torah). I have found three midrashic explanations:

1.  The two letters are large to ensure we pay special attention to this text.


2.  The yud-dalet spell the Hebrew word for witness and they indicate that we ourselves are standing witness to our affirmation.


3.  The dalet is exaggerated to ensure that we don=t confuse $(!, one, with 9(!, which looks almost the same but means Aother,@ which would be blasphemous. As for the large ayin at the end of sh=ma, it is allegedly there so one does not confuse 3/:, listen or hear, with !/:, which also looks somewhat the same but means Aperhaps@ and would be equally blasphemous.


Finally, in lieu of the usual set of questions that the author of a d=var typically poses to those attending Shabbat services at Or HaNeshamah, I will pose just one question, and it is the obvious one: What does the Sh=ma mean to you? What visions / thoughts / words does it invoke for you. No thought is beyond the pale. For me the meaning of oneness, Echad, merges my environmental profession with my Jewish soul; both are elements of Echad and each nourishes the other. What works for you?


Shabbat shalom,



At the time of publication of the book edited by Rabbi Borowitz:

$    Lawrence Hoffman was Professor of Liturgy at at the New York School of HUC-JIR.

$    Leonard Karavitz was Professor of Midrash and Homilitics at the New York School of HUC-JIR.

$    Lawrence Kushner was Rabbinic chair of the UAHC Commission on Religious Living

$    Harry Orlinsky was Emeritus Professor of Bible at the New York School of HUC-JIR.

$    David Sperling was Professor of Bible at the New York School of HUC-JIR.

$    Malcolm Stern was Emeritus Director of Placement at the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

$    Aaron Jacob Wolf was Rabbi of KAM Isaiah Israel in Chicago.

$    Michael Wyschogrod was Professor of Philosophy at Burch College of CCNY.

$    Marjorie Yudkin was Rabbi of Temple Covenant of Peace in Easton, PA.

[1] For commentary on the history and role of the Sh=ma, see Hertz, pp. 920-24.

[2] Brief bios at the time of writing appear in an addendum.