The Shema and the Death of Jacob
Lily’s third grade class is currently exploring the Shema, one of our tradition’s most central prayers. The students all know the words themselves (they did that in kindergarten!), but this is the first time some of them have thought really deeply about what the prayer means. Yesterday, I visited their class to share a special story about the Shema. It’s one of my favorites, so I thought I’d share it here.
The Shema and the paragraph that follow it (Ve’ahavtah) are excerpted from the Torah (Deut. 6:4-9). But the ancient rabbis who first devised our liturgy taught us that we can better understand the prayers if we remember that even though many of the texts in the prayerbook originally come from the Torah, some of them have other “spiritual” sources. The rabbis retold these “other” origins in order to teach us some of the deeper truths behind our tradition. (This special way of teaching Torah is called “midrash.”)
This is one story the rabbis told about the origin of the Shema.
[Also, you may know that in many synagogues, there’s a tradition to whisper the second line of the Shema (Barukh shem k’vod malkhuto le’olam va’ed), except on Yom Kippur. In addition to telling of the Shema's origin, this story is also one way our ancient rabbis explained this "whispering" tradition.]
Our ancestor Jacob was old, and he was living in Egypt. The whole family lived in Egypt after discovering that their long-lost brother Joseph was now a VIP in the Pharaoh’s palace. Jacob had lived a long life, and he was ready to die. (Gen. 47:28 says that Jacob was 147 years old!)
[Remember that Jacob has a second name, Israel, which he receives after wrestling with an angel (Gen. 32:25-33).]
Jacob is 147 years old, he lives in Egypt, and he’s mostly made peace with the fact that he’s going to die. But there’s one thing that makes him afraid. So he gathers his children to bless them and to have a final conversation.
When his twelve sons and his daughter arrive, he tells them, “I am afraid to die.”
They answer, “There is no need to fear death, father. God loves you.”
Jacob answers, “I am not afraid of death. I am afraid of dying and leaving you in Egypt without me. Egypt is a land that believes in many gods. It carves statues of people out of sides of mountains and pretends that they are gods. I am afraid that when I am gone, you will forget the one God, the God who spoke to Abraham and Isaac and to me.”
His thirteen children then answer, together, in a loud voice:
“Listen, Dad (aka Jacob, aka Israel). Don’t worry, because (no matter what the Egyptians believe) Adonai is our God. And we know that Adonai is one.”
In other words:
Shema Yisrael. (Listen, Israel.) Adonai Eloheinu. (Adonai is our God.) Adonai Echad. (Adonai is one.)
With his last dying breath (it was a whisper), Jacob answers:
“Praised is God, whose glorious reign will go on forever, since my children will carry on this heritage, and pass it on to their children, and on and on forever.”
In other words:
Barukh [ha-]Shem. (Praised is God,) K’vod malkhuto l’olam va’ed. (Whose glorious reign will go on forever.)
(based on Joel Grishaver’s retelling of Genesis Rabbah 98:4)
This is what we mean when we call the Shema the “watchword of our people.” When we say the Shema and follow it with Barukh Shem, we are retelling this story and reminding ourselves of our obligation and privilege to pass on our heritage to the next generation.