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Remembering who we are

Remembering who we are

Vaetchanan — Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11

July 31: 7:54 p.m.

In almost every World War II movie that I saw when I was growing up, the main characters were a platoon with a WASP lieutenant, an Irish kid, an Italian kid, a Southern kid, and a Jewish kid. And in every one of them, the Jewish boy was shot and, surrounded by his buddies, he used his dying breath to say, “Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad.”

This is perhaps the only Hebrew sentence that many Jews know. It’s understood as a declaration of faith. The Rabbis call it “kabbalat ol malkut shamayim” — acceptance of the sovereignty of God.

But the Shema is not such a simple thing. Some siddurim translate it as “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” Others use “… the Lord is our God, the Lord alone.” So what are we saying — God is unified, a rejection of polytheism, or that God is unique, unlike any other being? Each of these is a reasonable translation of the Hebrew.

Moreover, the Shema is more than this very complex sentence. Kriat Shema is not a single sentence, but three paragraphs, the first of which, beginning with “V’ahavta,” is found in our parasha. This first word tells us that we are to love God, but the Rabbis ask how can the Torah command an emotion? One explanation is that the love of God is inherent in all people, but we must take actions to awaken it. Another explanation is that what is necessary is that we act in a way that will bring others to worship God.

The Sages have an almost intuitive understanding that what is commanded is not emotion but action. In fact, this single paragraph contains several specific commandments:

• “Impress them upon your children” — means that parents are required to study Torah so that they will be able to teach;

• “Recite them … when you lie down and when you get up” — we are to recite the three paragraphs of the Shema and their surrounding blessings every morning and evening;

• “Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead” — this refers to tefillin; and

• “Inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” — this refers to the mezuzah.

Why do the Rabbis read this paragraph in this way? Not, because some have suggested, because they didn’t think in abstract terms. Rather, this reading reflects the reality of everyday human experience. In the press of business and the busy-ness of life, of tasks to accomplish, appointments to keep, meals to prepare, and errands to run, it’s all too easy to forget everything but the immediate job.

Our parasha teaches, when you go into the land, when you establish homes and fields, when you have a normal life again, take care that you don’t forget the God Who did all this for you. And if it pertained to the ones who witnessed visible miracles, how much more does it apply to subsequent generations.

Therefore, the Rabbis surrounded us with physical reminders — tefillin, mezuzot, and tzitzit; a calendar that moves to Jewish rhythms; kashrut; and more, confronting us with the message, “Remember who you are.”

This is how we fulfill “V’ahavta” — through daily reminders that we are a holy people and that reality carries responsibilities. Let us never forget, even for a day, that we have power through our words and actions to being God’s presence into the world.

Rabbi Joyce Newmark, a resident of River Vale, is a former religious leader of congregations in Leonia and Lancaster, Pa.

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