Vayechi 5783 – Emet
The Shema is probably the most iconic Jewish prayer. It is one we all know. They are words we say when we rise up and when we lie down. Words we sing to our children, words we whisper and words we proclaim with joyous song and melody. There are powerful stories and midrashim about rabbis and martyrs whose last words were the words of the Shema as their lives were taken from them. But when did the people of Israel first say the Shema? Our rabbis teach us that it was in this week’s parsha, Vayechi. In Deuteronomy Rabbah 2:34 we learn:
When did Israel first merit to be given the Sh’ma? From the moment that Jacob lay down on his deathbed, calling to all the tribes [i.e., his sons] and said to them: “Come together and listen/שמע, sons of Jacob.” What did he mean by this? He meant “From the moment I pass from the world you will bow down to another God.” And they answered him: Shema yisrael/Listen [to us] Israel – Adonai eloheinu/Adonai is our God – Adonai echad/only Adonai (Deuteronomy 6:4)
What is happening here? Jacob is frightened! He’s in a new land, in the diaspora. His children have had traumatic experiences with each other and he is worried that when he leaves this world his new religion, his entire Truth, will leave along with it. How will they be able to carry on the tradition? And how do his sons respond? They recite the Shema back to him! They say, “Listen, Israel (our father Jacob whose name is also Israel), your God is our God, and God is the only God.” We are here to carry on your Truth, they say. This is what we are affirming every time we say the Shema. This tradition, these values, this pathway to walking through this world, is one that we choose every single day.
In the end, all we can do is live and walk and practice our values throughout our lives. The words of this song, Emet, come from the paragraph before the last blessing surrounding the Shema. They are buried in the middle but contain everything. The word אמת, Truth, is an all-encompassing word – it contains the entire Hebrew alphabet from Aleph to Tav (with Mem right in the middle of the alphabet), and it contains the entire lifecycle of a human being from אֵם to מֵת – from the womb (mother) to death. This is our mission all the days of our lives: to lift up our truth and to walk with it, to hold onto our traditions and make them new each day.
This Shabbat, may we find a way to lift ourselves and the people we care about, to sing out and walk the path we were meant to walk in the world.