Aug 03 2017 Dvar Torah

Rabbi Robert Eisen

A play on an old cliché: “Familiarity breeds content” (not just a state of happiness, but something of substance as well). Consider, as an example, a selection of verses from the Torah Portion for this Shabbat that is probably familiar to every Jew – even those who have forgotten that they are Jewish. The portion? That which we refer to as “The SHEMA” (Deuteronomy 6:4): a proclamation of faith in God as One, Unique, Unified, Singular in Existence. And what follows that one verse? That which we refer to as “The V’AHAVTA” (Deuteronomy 6:5-9): a paragraph which expands on that verse and continues almost as a sermon on what such faith entails.

We like that passage. It is familiar, comforting, and sometimes serves as a prayer that gives us a feeling of connection with ourselves, each other and God.

However, scratch the surface a bit and the text becomes a much more profound theological statement … a challenge to ask ourselves what is more important: what we believe, or how!

A careful reading of the Hebrew text, the subtleties of which are not always captured in translations, would show that The SHEMA and The V’AHAVTA are connected by one letter: a “VUV”. That one letter, though not always translated, can mean a number of different things. Though usually considered a conjunctive (“and”), it can also be understood as a disjunctive (“but”).

Our most familiar reading of the Deuteronomy passage presumes the VUV to be conjunctive: The SHEMA teaching us what to believe … AND … The V’AHAVTA delineating how to give expression to core belief.

And yet, read the VUV as a disjunctive, and the passage challenges us to consider: The SHEMA teaches us what to believe … BUT … The V’AHAVTA is urging us to better focus on how we are giving expression to that core belief – the deed being more important/essential that the statement of creed. In essence, such a reading challenges us to reflect on which is more important: what we say we believe, or the way we are actually living our lives?!

So what”? Who cares? What does any of this have to do with me?

Well, that is actually very simple. Though we speak today in very guarded and politically correct terms … careful not to offend anyone (especially ourselves!) … talking about being a Jew or Jew-ish … this text (as the core text upon which our tradition is built) challenges us to cut through all of that noise and nonsense and get to the point. It reminds us that we need to be honest with ourselves … we need to challenge ourselves … we need to decide if we are going to be who we say and think we are … we need to remember that our values really aren’t what we say we believe, they are, in the end, what we do!

So what”? Who cares? What does any of this have to do with me? A play on an old cliché: “Familiarity breeds content” (not just a state of happiness, but something of substance as well).

Consider this: As we begin to prepare for the High Holyday season which begins all too quickly (in just a few weeks with the beginning of Elul, or in seven weeks with ROSH HASHANNAH – depending on how one counts) it is important to remember that what we will get out of our experience will depend on what we put into it. Thoughts., feelings, statements of faith alone may be satisfying, but if we want substance (if we want the New Year to be NEW!) we have to be prepared to do something about them as well.

We can approach the New Year as an “AND” – once again, one more, which may or may not be all that different than those which came before. Or, we can approach the New Year as an “HOWEVER MOMENT”, greet it as the opportunity it is for return and renewal … become the people that we think ourselves, and want ourselves, to be.