The Shema as a guide
TorahParshat Va’etchanan

The Shema as a guide

Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11

(File photo)
(File photo)

I have forever been a student of our liturgy, finding my greatest inspiration in the sounds of Jewish music and prayer. I remember even as a kid finding great solace in the rhythm and comfort of the Hebrew, reciting it to myself as a well-known mantra. This week’s portion, Va’etchanan, is perhaps the most connected to our daily liturgy, with the words of the Shema and continuation into the first paragraph of the V’ahavta marking the framework of our days. Some of us treat these words as a meditation to begin and end the day, perhaps covering our eyes, focusing on the meaning of the words.

The words of Shema are also to be the last words someone is to speak — or hear, if unable to speak— at the point of death. They are words connected to the timeline of our lives. And, I think solemnly that these were the words that the journalist Daniel Pearl spoke and held fast to before he was tragically killed.

What is it about the Shema that grounds us? It takes us back to some of our earliest Jewish memories, and even for those who chose Judaism at a later point in their lives, these are the words said to mark that moment when they officially entered into the covenant. As a cantor, I am often focused on creating prayer experiences which balance the comfort of ritual, using familiar melodies and connecting congregants with something that fulfills their set expectations, alongside the idea of pushing those same participants toward new, innovative paths of spirituality and enlightenment. The latter is not always an easy path, but one we must tread to stay connected to the present. I recently learned that scientists have found that when we travel and experience that which is outside our daily norm, our brains are actively rewired. Challenging our minds to see things in a new way keeps us alive and strengthens us.

The V’ahavta notes that we shall bind these words as a sign upon our hand and a symbol between our eyes. While some read this as literal instruction and symbolize this through the wearing of tefillin, I cherish the idea that these are words that guide us to hold true to our values as we employ them physically, mentally and spiritually. For many years, I have happily taught my students to not only sing the Shema, but also how to sign it in American Sign Language. When using sign language, one can choose and interpret the words that best suit the meaning of what one is trying to say. It is often the practice to sign the word “Shema” not as “to hear or listen,” but as the sign for “focus.” The Shema carries much broader meaning in guiding us in our lives if we find the focus it aims us toward.

It is fitting that the Shema arrives in the final book of the Torah. It holds the weight of the experience of our people, and became the center point of our prayer, holding in its words the very essence of our experience with the divine in the past, present and hopeful future. PJC

Cantor David Reinwald is the cantor of Temple Sinai. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Jewish Clergy Association.

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