Friday, December 28, 2012

Hear, O Israel

In this week’s Torah portion, Vay’chi, (Gen. 47:28-50:26) Jacob, on his deathbed, calls his twelve sons to him, and says to them, “Come together that I may tell you what is to befall you in days to come.  Assemble and hearken,  sons of Jacob, hearken to Israel your father”(Gen. 49:1-2)   What follows in the biblical text is an individual analysis of each son’s characteristics and strengths.  But a passage from the Talmud uses this opening as a lesson in the way we recite the Sh’ma, the central prayer of Jewish worship.

Our custom when reciting the Sh’ma in public worship is to say the first line, “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One” in a loud voice, as it is a verse from the Torah of Moses (Deut. 6:4), and is followed by the paragraph V’ahavta, (Deut. 6:5-9).  But the first line and the rest are interrupted by the line “Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom forever and ever”, which is not from the Bible, and it is recited in an undertone.  The Talmud (Pesachim 56a) imagines Jacob worrying that his children might not carry on his love for God.

Jacob thought,’ Perhaps, Heaven forfend! There is one unfit among my children, like Abraham, from whom there issued Ishmael, or like my father Isaac, from whom there issued Esau.’ But his sons reassured him, answering, and calling him “Israel”, the name given to him by God,  ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. Just as there is only One in your heart, so is there in our heart only One.’ In that moment Jacob opened his mouth and exclaimed, ‘Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom for ever and ever.’ Said the Rabbis, How shall we act? Shall we recite it— but our Teacher Moses did not say it. Shall we not say it — but Jacob said it! Hence they enacted that it should be recited quietly.

In case you’ve wondered why we use a hushed tone when reciting “Baruch shem k’vod malchuto l’olam va’ed”, you now know the reason – it is because we are interrupting a passage of Torah.  But another lesson to be drawn from this passage is the joy and gratitude that Jacob exhibits on hearing his sons affirm their devotion to the Holy One.  We all wonder about our own legacies, whether our children, our students, those whom we have mentored, will carry on the values and morals that we have modeled for them.  May we be able to know with confidence that the lessons of our lives will be passed on to the next generation.

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