Ve-et’chanan (And I Pleaded)

Ve-et'chananDeuteronomy 3:23 to 7:11

This week’s text contains the most well-known prayer in Jewish liturgy… The Shma. Through the ages, this prayer has had different meanings reflecting the thinking of the time.

Moses ends his first discourse and begins a second address to the Israelites before they enter the Promised Land. In the second address, Moses relates the Ten Commandments … then implores the people to “Be careful, then, to do as your God has commanded you. Do not turn to the right or the left; follow only the path that your God has enjoined upon you, so that you may thrive and that it may go well with you, and that you may long endure in the land you are to possess.” (Deut. 5:29-30)

In the middle of the address Moses speaks a line that has become the code of faith for all Jews.

Shma Yisrael, Adonai Elohenu, Adonai Echad
… Hear O Israel: Adonai is our God, Adonai is One. (Deut. 6:4)

These are the words that have been recited twice daily by pious Jews through the ages… They are the first Hebrew prayer taught to children in our schools…. They are to be the last words to be recited at the time of death… They are the most universally known Hebrew phrase in all Jewish tradition.

But as we look back at history, these words did not always have the same meaning.

Early rabbis taught that this phrase was an affirmation of the partnership between God and the Israelites. In these early days, the Israelites believed Adonai was their God, while other peoples had different Gods. They saw Adonai as ONE. Other gods took the form of many individual beings that inhabited the Earth, sky, and oceans. Rashi (11th Century) stated that “Adonai alone is God in heaven above and on earth below; there is no other.”

Rambam (Maimonides – 12th Century) saw the statement “God is one,”not so much as statement of a single God.; but, a statement that God’s unity as eternal and unique…. God creates all that is and continues to create all that will be. In other words, God’s power is one … all that exists is God’s creation. God’s power is endless.

Ranban (Nachmanides – 13th Century) notes that the text of the Shma in the Torah is written with two larger sized-Hebrew letters. The last letter of the first word (Shma) is an ayin … and the last letter of the last word (Echade) is a daled are both enlarged in size. Combined, the letters form the Hebrew word ed (witness). So, by reciting this prayer, we are saying that we were witnesses to Sinai and believe that “Adonai is our God, Adonai is one”.

Rabbi Abraham Samuel Benjamin Sofer (19th Century Hungarian) speculated that the statement that “God is one” was meant to teach us that all human experience comes from God. Both good and evil events are derived from God. Many early religions believed that there were gods that provided good… and other gods were responsible for evil. Sofer saw both coming from God. This follows Moses teaching that, if the Israelites followed the commandments, good would result. If they strayed, bad events would follow. In effect, the bad events are really teaching us to do good.

The modern Jewish Philosopher, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, disagrees with the concept that God creates the evil in the world. He did not see how a loving God could be responsible for all human war and resulting atrocities… He did not see God as responsible for earthquakes, famines, or floods. He saw the God that created evil would be seen as an evil monster. His idea is that God’s omnipotence (all-powerfulness) is not realized at any given point in time … but can become a future potential fact. God will exist forever. Then, the evil that exists now (and in the past) can be eliminated by the people (God’s creation) in the future. The people who implement these solutions will do so through the laws and commandments of Torah. By placing God, and the laws and commandments, into our lives we can create Tikkun Olam (a world repaired).

Putting Kaplan’s ideas into our world, we realize that even though the AIDS virus is part of God’s creation, God is working with the people to repair and create a better world. Doctors have found a way to tame the AIDS virus… and at the same time, see a greater acceptance of the gay population…. Tikkun Olam.

Other commentators see the words of the Aleinu prayer restating, and updating the Shma to look forward to the day when Adonai will be accepted as the one God by all the people of the world. “Let us now praise the Sovereign of the universe, and proclaim the greatness of the Creator who has set us apart from the other families of the earth, giving us a destiny unique among the nations. We bend the knee and bow, acknowledging the supreme Sovereign, sovereign over all the earth. On that day, Adonai will be one, and God’s Name will be one.”

Shma Yisrael, Adonai Elohenu, Adonai Echad
… Hear O Israel: Adonai is our God, Adonai is One. (Deut. 6:4)

Earl Sabes

Much of the information used in preparing these comments came from A Torah Commentary for Our Times, Harvey J. Fields, Vol. 3, pp. 109-13.

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