“Parsha and Purpose” – Va’etchanan 5782
Rabbi Kenneth Brander’s weekly insights into the parsha
“The Power of a Whisper“
The Power of a Whisper
In Parshat Va’etchanan, we are introduced to “Shema Yisrael”, the passage that speaks about our faith and fidelity to God. [Deuteronomy 6:4-9]
The Talmud [Pesachim 56a] records a dispute over how to recite these passages in our prayer services. According to one opinion, we should read it in the sequence in which it appears in the Bible:
“שמע ישראל ה’ אלוקינו ה’ אחד”
“Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokenu Hashem Echad”
“Hear, O Israel…the Lord is one”, immediately followed by the words:
“ואהבת את ה’ אלוקיך…”
“Ve’ahavta et Hashem Elokecha…”
We are to love God, to know God, engage with God, etc.
Another opinion maintains that we should recite these passages in the way in which it occurs at Jacob’s deathbed. The Sages teach that Jacob gathers his children around and wants to share the prophecy of the End of Days, but he is unable to. [Genesis 49:1, and Rashi’s commentary]
He fears that like his father and his grandfather, it is because his home is incomplete. After all, Avraham had Yishmael and Yitzchak had Eisav. Immediately, his children, in unison, answer “Shema Yisrael – Yisrael, Jacob – we are one; we are totally committed to God.”
And he responds, “Baruch shem kevod malchuto le’olam va’ed” – God’s Name and what He represents is eternal in my family.
The Talmud resolves this conflict with a compromise: we should recite the Biblical text of Va’etchanan aloud, and we should whisper “Baruch shem kevod malchuto le’olam va’ed”.
And that’s what we do: We recite “Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokenu Hashem Echad” aloud, then we utter, in a whisper, “Baruch shem kevod malchuto le’olam va’ed”. And then we return to the verses in the Torah: “Ve’ahavta et Hashem Elokecha bechol levavcha u’vechol nafshecha u’vechol me’odecha”, etc.
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik recognized the fact that we do something more than just whisper the words that are found in the dialogue of Jacob and his children. He taught that we actually collapse the dialogue into a monologue.
And the reason is that when we recite the Shema of Parshat Va’etchanan, we play the role of two different characters: we first play the role of Jacob’s children – “Shema Yisrael” – “Hear O Israel”. Hear, the Jewish people, “Hashem Elokenu, Hashem Echad”. We are committed to being the children of Israel. We are committed to the tradition. We are committed to the values of what it means to study Torah and to find a relationship with God.
But then we merge in a whisper, to be not just like the children of Israel, but also like Jacob the teacher, “Baruch shem kevod malchuto le’olam va’ed”.
We also have to be able to take on the mantle of leadership, to teach the vision of Judaism to our family, to ourselves, to our community and to society.
We play both roles: we are the student – “Shema Yisrael” – and we are the teacher – “Baruch shem kevod malchuto”. We must be both.
So, too, Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of Comfort, requires us to play both roles. It requires us to pursue the role of student, of constantly engaging and renewing our relationship to God, but never allowing that to prevent us from also being the teacher, in making our families better, in making our community better, and making our society better.
“Nachamu nachamu ami”, we will be comforted and redeemed when we take on both of these responsibilities, the responsibility of being the student and simultaneously, the responsibility of being the teacher. The responsibility of saying “Shema Yisrael” and also “Baruch shem kevod malchuto le’olam va’ed”.