The Sabbath of comfort and the Shema

By Cantor Sheri Allen
Parashat VaEtchanan

This Shabbat is known as Shabbat Nachamu — the Sabbath of comfort. But I think it can just as easily be called the Sabbath of relief. It follows the somber “Three Weeks” that began with the 17th of Tammuz, when the walls of Jerusalem were breached so many years ago, and culminates in the observance of Tisha B’Av, the saddest day in the Jewish calendar, marking many catastrophic events in Jewish history including the destruction of both the first and second Temples.

So, after a three-week semi-mourning period in which traditionally we refrain from participating in any joyous celebrations, eating meat, drinking wine or even cutting our hair, culminating in a 25-hour fast in triple-digit heat, Shabbat Nachamu begins the seven-week countdown to Rosh Hashanah, as we begin the process of teshuvah — repentance — and a renewal of our relationship with the Eternal.

On this first Shabbat post-Tisha B’Av, we read Parashat VaEtchanan, where we find the words of the Shema and V’ahavta as well as the reiteration of the Aseret HaDibrot, (the Ten Commandments, or more accurately, “Utterances”).

These words, along with other verses from VaEtchanan, also appear in our siddurim. One such verse (Deuteronomy 4:4) — “V’yadata hayom, v’hasheivota el l’vavecha, Ki Adonai Hu ha-Elokim, bashamayim mima’al, v’al haaretz mitachat, ein od” — pops up in the Aleinu, one of the closing prayers of every service.

The fact that our rabbis felt the need to pepper our siddurim with multiple passages from this week’s parashah attests to its importance.

The editors of the “Eitz Chaim Chumash” call Chapter 4 “The theological heart of Deuteronomy, containing its most fundamental precepts: monotheism and the prohibition of idolatry.”

I would even go a step further. I contend that VaEtchanan is the theological heart of the entire Torah. And I believe that the Shema, the commandment to listen, and the V’ahavta, the commandment to love G-d, embody every one of the 613 commandments within the Torah.

That said, the Shema and V’ahavta present some interesting theological challenges right off the bat. Technically, the Shema isn’t a prayer. The standard prayer formula addresses G-d directly, whereas the Shema is an issued command to us: “Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad: Listen/hear people of Israel, Adonai is our G-d, Adonai is One/Adonai alone.” What is curious about its construction, however, is that the command to listen, “Shema,” is in the singular form, addressed to each one of us as individuals. Professor Arnold Eisen, the former chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, translates this as “Listen, Jewish human being.” It demands that each one of us has the responsibility to reflect on what our personal relationship with G-d will look like.

And yet, we are also commanded to view Adonai not as “Elohecha” — your G-d — which would grammatically make sense given the context, but as “Eloheinu”: “our G-d.” Why this mix of pronouns in the same sentence? Professor Eisen comments, “It speaks in the singular and demands that we learn to act in community that way, as a unity, when it comes to G-d; not surrendering our differences or losing our variety, but using that very diversity to accomplish what one mind (or one sort of mind or heart or soul or ability), acting alone, could not.”

Perhaps even more difficult than fulfilling the commandment to listen is fulfilling the commandment to love. The V’ahavta exhorts us to “Love Adonai with all your heart, with all your soul and with everything that you have.” Herein lies the challenge. We can be told what to do, but how can we be told what to feel? The answer lies in the verses that follow.

The V’ahavta is a blueprint that tells us what we must do in order to be able to eventually, hopefully, experience that love — namely: teaching, studying, learning Torah and thus knowing how G-d expects us to treat each other and the world we live in. And then putting what we’ve learned into action by following those mitzvot that lead us to engage in the work of tikkun olam, repairing the world. The V’ahavta also talks about visual reminders we need to make mitzvot central in our lives: mezuzah and tefillin, both of which contain the Shema and the V’ahavta. Listening, learning, doing can lead to love: love of G-d and of all that G-d has created.

As we recite the Shema and V’ahavta, may we all be blessed with the overwhelming power of this love each day. And may Shabbat Nachamu bring us comfort as we turn our thoughts and concentration to renewing our lives again in the upcoming new year.

Cantor Sheri Allen is the co-founder of Makom Shelanu Congregation in Fort Worth.

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