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WHAT IS THE SOUL OF JUDAISM?

Friday, 22 September, 2023 - 6:00 am

 I want to take this opportunity to wish you all a “Gamar Chatimah Tovah,” may you be sealed in the Book of Life for a goodsweet, and healthy new year.

I remember my first roller coaster ride as though it were yesterday. I was seven years old at Six Flags Great Adventure, on a ride called “the American Scream Machine.” My heart was pounding as the coaster slowly started its climb to the top. When it hit the top, there was a momentary pause; the sun beat down on us as we waited. Suddenly, the cars jerked into motion while rapidly gaining speed. We were hovering over a long, steep drop above a lake. I gripped the shoulder harness as we plunged into a free fall, and all I heard was terrible screaming. I feared the cars would jolt off the tracks. But instead of screaming incoherently, I gathered all my powers of belief and shouted a colossal Shema Yisrael!

Shema Yisra'el Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad!” “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our G-d, the Lord is One!”

During the entire ride, I found myself repeating again and again the six words of the Shema. On the roller coaster, I was a “Jew by propulsion.”

I wonder about that reflex, that immediate, intuitive turn to the Shema in my panic on the roller coaster. Throughout our history, Jews have repeatedly recited the Shema at moments of crisis and moments of celebration. Why the Shema? Why do we choose it for comfort and inspiration above all other verses in the vast Jewish liturgy?

There are 5,845 verses in the Torah. But only one verse -- the Shema -- is chosen by our tradition to be recited -- as a mitzvah -- twice daily, every evening and morning.

Shema is the first verse we teach children. And traditionally it is the last words recited by a Jew on his deathbed. Many Jews who died for their faith, bravely died with those words on their lips.

Not everyone knows, but the words of the Shema are written on the parchment in the mezuzah on the doorpost of the Jewish home, and it is written on the parchment inside the boxes of tefillin, as the Torah itself has instructed us to do.

The Shema is the only verse, which, according to Jewish tradition, must be recited with full concentration. If one says Shema without being mindful, then one has not fulfilled the mitzvah.  

And it is with the crescendo of the Shema that we will culminate the Neilah service by the end of Yom Kippur.

Why such a pervasive and persistent reiteration of the Shema?

Because it is the foundation of Jewish faith, it expresses the deepest elements of Jewish spirituality.

Shema means not only “to hear,” but to focus, pay attention, understand, and internalize that there is one G-d. When we say the Shema, we reject the idea that there is no G-d, and that the world is a product of random chance. We also reject the idea of a pantheon of gods, a belief held by many ancient cultures, which created hordes of deities that simply resembled more powerful human beings.

To understand “G-d is One” - “Hashem Echad,” is to know that the universe exists, and we exist, because One G-d, Author of all, brought us into existence with purpose and love, and therefore our lives have ultimate meaning.

During the dark times of Communism in the Soviet Union, a teacher was proving to her class that G-d does not exist. “Do you see that tree?" she asked, pointing out the window "Yes,” the students replied, "We see the tree."

“That is because the tree exists,” the teacher said. "Do you see the grass?" she continued. "Yes," the students answered.

"That is because it exists. Do you see the sky?" Yes.
“That is because it exists. Do you see G-d up there?" the teacher asked. "No" the students answered, “We don’t see God."

"That’s because,” the teacher concluded, “God does not exist!"

At that moment a little Jewish girl stood up and said: “I’d just like to ask the class; do you see the teacher’s eyes?"

"Yeah, we see the teacher’s eyes," the class replied.

The little girl continued: “That is because she has them. Do you see the teacher’s arms?”

“Yes,” the class answers. “That is because they exist,” says the little girl. “Do you see her brain?" “No” they answer.  “That is because it doesn’t exist!”

You can choose to live your life where the only thing that is real is what you detect with your senses. But if you think about it, the deepest things in life, the most valuable things, can’t be touched or seen by the naked eye. Can you touch meaning, or happiness, or holiness, or love? Or friendship or integrity, trust or compassion? These are the things that bring fulfillment and enduring joy to our lives. These things are just as real as the things we see, only more deeply hidden.

Do you know what you can touch and taste? Chocolate cake. You know what you can’t? Hope for a better tomorrow. Would you want to give up either in your life?

In fact, when you can’t see something, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. It often means it exists on a much deeper level. The truest essence of reality is not that which meets the eye. This is why the Shema is always recited while covering our eyes with our hands. This is to teach us not to be distracted by what we see. Judaism teaches us to focus on the inner dimension, the soul, not the facade; on character, not flash; on ethics, not power; on the inner reality, not the mask of the outside world.

You see, there are two kinds of culture. You have the visual culture, the culture of the tangible. And then you have a culture of sound – A Shema culture, a culture where the invisible is more powerful than the visible.

Most civilizations have been visual cultures. From the earliest pagans who saw the gods in the sun and storms, and worshiped what their eyes beheld, to the ancient Greeks who excelled in art, architecture, sculpture, and the theater – the visual arts.

Today’s secular culture is the ultimate visual culture, dominated by television, video, the computer screen, the iPad, the X-box, and YouTube.

Even the phone that used to be for listening is going out of fashion. It has morphed into the camera phone. The new Apple iPhone 15 really takes this to the extreme.

Judaism, by contrast, with its belief in the invisible G-d who transcends the universe, is supremely a civilization of the ear, of listening to the deeper reality. Hearing represents a depth of understanding of what can’t be seen.

Hence the key verb in Judaism is Shema, “Hear”. It’s a call to move beyond the external aspect of reality and to hear, to internalize, deeper G-dly truth and the yearnings of your soul.  Now what does a visual culture produce?

It produces art, paintings, architecture, sculpture and theater. In Judaism, where's the architecture? Where is the art? Where's the theatre?

There isn't any. The most famous piece of Jewish architecture for the past 2000 years has been one broken wall. It’s holy but broken. And we call it the “Wailing Wall”. You see, you have to listen to it. And for theater, we’ve got, “Fiddler on the Roof.” Put this all together and we have half of a wall, a roof, and a fiddler. Not even a Kosher Sukkah!

And look at how this idea affects our language. In English, almost all of our words for understanding or intellect are governed by the metaphor of sight. We speak of insight, hindsight, foresight, and vision. We speak of people making an observation. When we understand something, we say, “I see.” You know the word “video” comes from the Latin word, “Idea”. The “v” is a soft consonant which gets dropped. An idea is something you see. Greek culture is a sight-oriented culture.

Judaism, by contrast, is the paradigm of an auditory culture in which the primary act is not seeing but listening. The Babylonian Talmud consistently uses the metaphor of hearing. When a proof is about to be brought, it says “Ta Shema,” “Come and hear.” When it speaks of implication it says, “Shema mina”, “Hear from this.” When someone disagrees with a proposition, it says “Lo shemiyah leih,” “He could not hear it.” When it draws an inference it says, “Mashma”, “From this it can be heard.” In Western culture, understanding is a form of seeing. In Judaism, it is a form of listening.

This is fascinating because this shows us that Judaism is a culture not of the eye but of the ear, of deep listening and understanding.

Shema, Hear O Israel, tells us not to confuse our facade with our true inner nature. Whatever occupied us this year, on Yom Kippur we gather together because we know that our Judaism, our soul, our identity, is our true essence.

Friends, there is a beautiful teaching in the Midrash8 about the origin of Shema Yisrael and how it became the quintessential declaration of our faith. At the end of the book of Genesis, at the end of Jacob's life in Egypt, after he and his family have reconciled with Joseph, Jacob calls Joseph to his bedside.

Realizing he is about to pass away, Jacob wants to bless his grandchildren, Manasseh and Ephraim. He tells Joseph how much he loves them as if they were his very own children. Then, in the next verse, the Torah says, Jacob looks at Joseph's children, Manasseh and Ephraim, and asks, Who are those kids?”

Joseph answers him: “Those are the children with whom G-d has blessed me.”

How could it be that Jacob doesn’t recognize his own grandchildren, the ones he has just been talking about, saying how much he loves them?

The Midrash says that it’s not because his eyesight failed, as happened to his father Isaac. Jacobs’s vision was fine. He didn’t recognize them because they looked Egyptian. Born and raised in Egypt, their dress, their appearance, was no different from the young people around them. And that deeply bothered Jacob. When he asks, “Who are those young people?” he is really asking “I know what their names are, but who are they? Are they part of our people, with the same commitments and loyalties? Or have they become Egyptian-like children with Jewish parents?  Who, truly, are those kids?”

Menasseh and Ephraim, sensing their grandfather’s concern, answer him, “Shema Yisrael, listen, Grandpa Israel,” –remember, Jacob's other name is Israel— “Hashem Elokeynu, the Lord is our G-d.”

His grandchildren are saying, “We may look different, we may speak differently – not Hebrew but Egyptian – however, we still believe in the same G-d, the same Covenant, the same values, the same momentous history and destiny as you do. Shema Yisrael, listen, dear Grandfather, we know Hashem Echod!”

That is the origin of the Shema. And ever since, Jewish parents have blessed their sons, particularly on the eve of Yom Kippur, saying “May you be like Ephraim and Manasseh, integrated and successful in the society in which you live, and at the same time, deeply loyal and learned members of the Jewish people.”

Friends,  the question is Who am I truly? Am I working to become the kind of person I want to be, the Jew I want to be? Am I working to build a Jewish family that will be able to sing Shema Yisrael?” This was a lesson that applied in Ephraim and Manasseh’s time and still applies today.

There is a true story that was reported in USA Today and other newspapers. A rabbi was on a flight from Chicago and on the flight was an elderly Jew, struggling with his suitcase, and unable to walk very well. So the rabbi came over to help him carry his bags, and they got into a conversation.

The man said he was on his way back home from a family wedding in Chicago. So, the rabbi said, “It’s difficult for you to travel. I think that if you had to convey your regrets for not showing up, your relatives would understand.

The man says to him: “You don’t understand. Since my experience in the concentration camps, I never missed an opportunity to celebrate a family Simcha. No matter how much of a schlep it may be, it’s never a burden. I go to a Bar Mitzvah, the wedding of a grandchild, -- I sing, and I dance like I’m a teenager. You see, this is my revenge against the forces of evil.”

Then he tells this rabbi an incredible thing. He says, “After the war; after we were liberated, I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know where to go, so I decided to go back home -- to my hometown of Vilna. I wanted to see if I could find any surviving family members or any childhood friends.

“I traveled many months to get to Vilna, from the late spring into the fall. There were many others, close to 400 of us traveling together, searching, and hoping. We came to Vilna and walked the streets. We couldn’t recognize the place. Its life had been snuffed out.

“As evening was about to fall, somebody reminded us that that night was Simchat Torah. Suddenly our spirits soared. We decided that we would go back to the great shul and celebrate Simchat Torah once again in that special place. As we approached the shul, we saw that it was boarded up and surrounded by barricades. We didn’t care. We tore them down and rushed inside.

“We could not believe what we saw, the desecration, torn pages of prayer books on the floor, bullet holes everywhere. We cleaned up as best we could and decided that we would have our Simchat Torah celebration, nonetheless. We walked to the eastern wall, to the skeleton of what was a magnificent Holy Ark We opened its doors. Empty. No Torahs. We were heartbroken again. Our Simchat Torah enthusiasm melted away.

“Then I took a look at our group. It was close to 400 adults. Suddenly I noticed that two little children had joined us that night. You see, I traveled hundreds of miles without seeing even one Jewish child.

“And a thought occurred to me. I stooped down, lifted the boys like a trophy and we all started to sing and cry. We formed a circle and began to dance. We had no Sefer Torah to carry in our arms, but we did have those two beautiful Jewish children whom we lifted onto our shoulders.

“Then someone called out in a loud voice: ‘Master of the world, Ribono shel olom, we have no scrolls of ink and parchment, but these two children are our living Sefer Torahs! Help us live as Jews! “We danced until morning with those smiling children. We knew ‘Am Yisroel Chai,’ the Jewish people would live on.”

Let us join our voices to that momentous four-thousand-year-old chorus whose power and holiness have carried us to this day. Friends, let us recite the Shema in unison, together with one heart, as one people, who believes in one G-d.

Wishing you and your family Shabbat Shalom and

Gmar Chatima Tova a sweet happy year,

Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

 

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