Pay Attention, Israel!

sign language

Shema, Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad!

Hear, O Israel, the Eternal is our God, the Eternal is One!

When I served Temple Beth Solomon of the Deaf in Southern California, I worked to learn how to say my prayers in ASL, American Sign Language. As is always the case with translation, there were some tricky bits about making the words of the prayers truly available to the congregation.  The first word of the Shema, the central prayer of Judaism, is usually translated “hear.” The problem is that to say that word to a group of Deaf people would lose the very essence of the prayer, because it immediately excluded them.

This dilemma is handled in various ways in various Deaf Jewish communities, but at TBS, they use the sign for “understand” to translate “Shema.” It is a gesture that begins with a closed fist at the forehead, palm toward the face. Then the index finger pops up, thus:

(I am saying “understand” here because that is what the sign means in standard ASL.)

It can be very disturbing when a prayer is translated differently, or when we sing it to a new tune. I originally found this translation of the Shema to be very troubling, because I was accustomed to “Hear.” I still think that had it been my decision, I’d have gone with “Pay attention!” However, the unfamiliar translation made me start thinking: what best communicates the spirit of the Shema?

Now, when I say the Shema, I listen to it in Hebrew, in English, and yes, in ASL. Every new translation possibility has enriched my understanding of the raw Hebrew. Every possibility of meaning collapses back into

Shema, Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad!

What does “Shema” mean to you?

Murky Sunset

SFBaySunset 8/15

Last night’s sunset was downright creepy. The Sabbath departed amidst the smoke of several huge fires upstate. The horizon was obliterated by the filth in the air; the murk appeared to swallow the burning orange ball of the sun.

The land is dry from four years of drought. Unwise management in the past has left us with a huge fuel load in many of our wild lands, and in some places there are stands of exotic (non-native) plants that add to the danger because they are rich in super-flammable oils. Now firefighters are risking their lives to try to protect people, animals, and property from the ravages of the fires – and fire season in California has months yet to go.

The facts of the drought here in California are sobering: right now, we have made our water supply almost completely dependent on the Sierra snow pack, which has not been replenished in four winters. The coming El Niño weather system may or may not bring the snow our system requires. Paleoclimate research by Dr. Lynn Ingram at UC Berkeley suggests that we are entering a period of prolonged drought: the “unusual weather” was the weather of the last 100 years, not this new and much drier weather. Ever since the snowpack water has gone, farmers in the Central Valley have been drawing on groundwater, a very limited resource that is also going dry. Many people in the Valley no longer have running water at home. Some species, like the Coho salmon, are now nearing extinction. And it is fair to say that this summer the state is burning up. Right this moment, 21 huge fires are burning across the state, only a few contained by firefighters (meaning that firefighters have managed to keep them from spreading, but they are still burning.)

What are we to do?

At least twice every day from the end of Sukkot to Passover, an observant Jew prays the words, “Mashiv haruach umorid hagashem.” [who causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall.] It is a daily prayer for rain, composed originally in the Land of Israel, which has a climate much like ours in California. Rain falls mostly in the wintertime, and it is scarce enough to be a constant concern. So it became our practice to pray for rain in its season.

In the dry season, we pray for dew (“morid hatal”) which reminds us that the tiniest drop of moisture is precious. When we cannot expect rain, we must still pray for dew, so that life can continue. The very text of our prayer causes us to remain mindful of water, regardless of current circumstance.

According to the experts, a lack of mindfulness about water is a big part of our problem right now. We have consumed recklessly, assuming that the snow will come to the Sierras so that we can plant whatever and wherever we want. We can use water – a limited resource – in whatever way amuses us, and we act as if we can afford to waste it.

Some Jews also recite the verses from Deuteronomy that make up the “second paragraph” of the Shema in their daily prayers:

So if you listen carefully to my mitzvot which I am giving you today, to love the Eternal your God and serve him with all your heart and all your being; then I will give your land its rain at the right seasons, including the early fall rains and the late spring rains; so that you can gather in your wheat, new wine and olive oil; and I will give your fields grass for your livestock; with the result that you will eat and be satisfied.’  But be careful not to let yourselves be seduced, so that you turn aside, serving other gods and worshipping them. If you do, the anger of the Eternal will blaze up against you. He will shut up the sky, so that there will be no rain. The ground will not yield its produce, and you will quickly pass away from the good land the Eternal is giving you. Therefore, you are to store up these words of mine in your heart and in all your being; tie them on your hand as a sign; put them on your forehead; teach them carefully to your children, saying them when you sit at home, when you are traveling on the road, when you lie down and when you get up; and write them on the door-frames of your house and on your gates — so that you and your children will live long on the land the Eternal swore to your ancestors that he would give them for as long as there is sky above the earth. – Deuteronomy 11:13-21

Some may scoff and say, “Oh, rabbi, do you really think that drought is a punishment from God?” I believe that it is, given my understanding of “God.” When we disregard the laws of nature, when we act as if  we can consume resources at will, without concern for anything or anyone else, when we worship the idols of the market and technology, we court disaster.

What can we do? Prayer and study are a beginning. Let us listen to the words of our prayers as we say them, and remember that we are merely stewards of creation, not the owners of it. While some make a pshat (surface) reading of Genesis 1 and say, “Ahh, we can do whatever we want!” the rabbis have long cautioned us that this is an improper reading. In Kohelet Rabbah 7:13, we learn that:

God showed Adam around the Garden of Eden and said, “Look at my works! See how beautiful they are — how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.”

The words of Torah in our prayers teach us  that we are the stewards of creation. We have more important things to do than merely to consume goods and services. We must care for creation, and for one another, whether we do that by fighting fires or by conserving limited resources. We can do it in our homes and in the voting booth. We can do it with our choices about consumption and tzedakah.

It is not too late to change our ways.

Praying for Rain, Drowning in Snow

New England has been hit with a huge snowstorm. I’ve seen it on the news: multiple feet of snow, snow billowing in the wind, filling up the screen. I know that it is causing a lot of suffering; I shudder to think what homelessness or poverty mean in weather like that.

And yet I have to confess that one of my emotions watching this news is envy.  I’m in California. The East is having biblical storms, and we are having biblical drought. As awful as that blizzard was, we’d need a few of them up in the Sierras before we could quit worrying about water here.

The phrase in Hebrew in the tweet is “who sends wind and causes the rain to fall.” It’s a prayer we say daily as part of the Amidah from Sukkot to Passover, asking for rain to fall, asking that winter be winter. So far, winter in California has been more like fall or spring: cool and breezy, but not much rain since December.  And winter “back East” and in the Midwest has been brutal and wet.

Our climate is out of whack. There’s a section of the Shema I think about a lot lately, one that the early Reformers ditched back in the 19th century because they felt it too “superstitious:”

And if you obey My commandments which I enjoin upon you this day, to love the Eternal your God and to serve God with all your heart and with all your soul, I will give rain for your land at the proper time, the early rain and the late rain, and you will gather in your grain, your wine and your oil. And I will give grass in your fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be satisfied. Take care lest your heart be lured away, and you turn astray and worship alien gods and bow down to them. For then the Eternal’s wrath will flare up against you, and God will close the heavens so that there will be no rain and the earth will not yield its produce, and you will swiftly perish from the good land which the Eternal gives you. – Deuteronomy 11: 13-17

Let’s leave the traditional understanding of that passage aside, just for a moment. Try this paraphrase of the last bit:

Take care lest your heart be lured away, and you turn astray from the commandments and worship alien gods (like power, money or convenience) and bow down to them (give them priority over the commandments.) For then there will be no rain and the earth will not yield its produce, and you will swiftly perish.

The last several years have been the hottest on record. Drought plagues the breadbasket of the nation and the eastern cities are awash in floods and snow. Perhaps, just perhaps, greed might have something to do with this. Convenience might have something to do with this. A desire to ride in my own car all by myself, no matter the cost, might have something to do with it. That’s what the scientists are saying; so much for “superstition.”

I have lost count of the number of my friends with cancer. I’m a baby boomer. We’ve been swimming in toxic chemicals all our lives, from dyes to food additives to pesticides and plastics. DDT wasn’t banned for agricultural use until 1972. Questionable stuff abounds in our air, our food, our water, and in our bodies. All of those things make money for someone, give power to someone, are convenient for someone. When “someone” is myself, it’s still cold comfort when the diagnosis comes.

Are money, power and convenience bad? Of course not, not in and of themselves. In excess, though, they can be a problem. When we put them before our ethics, yes, a problem.

One of the purposes of Jewish prayer is to make us more aware of the contradictions in our lives. If we say the Shema and pay attention to the meaning, every word of it will transform our lives. Same with the daily Amidah: say it and pay attention, and suddenly life will look different.

As for this one prayer for rain, I suggest to anyone who feels waterlogged that they might quietly add “b’California” (“in California”) to the line. We’re mighty dry.

What Goes On in a Jewish Service? (Especially for Beginners)

A reader asked: “Is there a general pattern to the service, or not?”

The Jewish service may seem aimless to a newcomer. We stand, we mumble, we sit, we sing, we repeat a prayer from earlier, we do something that looks suspiciously like the hokey-pokey, we read some more prayers, we sing, we’re done. It is no surprise that many newcomers are left wondering: “What was THAT?”

I supply links to more detailed material. Click on any word you don’t understand or want to learn about more deeply. If I haven’t supplied a link, let me know in the comments and I’ll fix that.

Warm Up with Blessings and Praise

In the beginning, the service leader takes us through a series of “warm-ups” designed to help us prepare to pray. They might include a greeting, songs or psalms, and some prayers. This is one of the parts of the service that will vary greatly from place to place.

You will know this section is over when we stand for the “Barechu” prayer. It signals that we’re ready to get down to serious business.

Prelude and Postlude: Blessings

The Shema is preceded by two blessings. These prayers lead us into the proper frame of mind for the Shema. The first blessing has to do with Creation, the natural world. The second has to do with Revelation, how we have received Torah. The Shema itself is a passage from Torah. Then we say a blessing of Redemption, and the passage “Mi Chamocha” remembering our deliverance from Egypt.

The Core of the Service: Shema & Amidah

The service addresses two specific sets of mitzvot (commandments.) The first set is to say the Shema twice daily.

The second set is a little more complex. We say the Amidah [Standing Prayer] in order to fulfill our duty to maintain the Temple sacrifices. Back when the Temple stood in Jerusalem, we sacrificed animals according to the directions in the book of Leviticus. The book of Deuteronomy makes it clear that we are not to make sacrifices anywhere other than the Temple in Jerusalem. So once the Romans destroyed the Temple, we had a problem: how could we meet our obligation to maintain the sacrificial cult?

The Jewish people came up with an ingenious replacement for the sacrifices. Instead of sacrificing animals, we would make sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving. If you read the first four chapters of Leviticus, you will see that every sacrifice was stacked upon the altar in a very specific way. Ever since the loss of the Temple Jews have kept the obligation to sacrifice by chanting the “stacked” prayers of the Amidah.

The final prayer in the Amidah is a prayer for shalom, for peace.

Sermon & Torah

At this point in the service, the “Torah service” (reading from the Torah) may be inserted. Traditionally Torah is read only in daylight on Shabbat, Mondays, and Thursdays.

If there is to be a sermon it will also usually come at this point.

Cool Down with Aleinu and Kaddish

We finish the service with the “concluding prayers.” Aleinu [“It is upon us”] is a mission statement for the Jewish People. If that sounds like a tall order, it is, which is why there are many versions of this prayer. Kaddish is a prayer for transitions; you will have heard it previously at least once in the service, but the Mourner’s Kaddish is usually the last big prayer in the service. We say it to recognize the last big transition in life, the transition from life to death. We recall the names of people who have died recently and in the past when we say this prayer.

These last prayers get us ready to go back out into the world, reminded of our mission in life and that life itself is actually very short.

Closing Song

Just as we do not stop a Torah or Haftarah reading on a sad verse, we don’t finish the service with the Mourner’s Kaddish. One very popular song for the end of the service is Adon Olam. Another is Ein Keloheinu:

A few other notes:

  • The exact parts and order of the service will vary by time of day. Check this chart for details.
  • The Shabbat Amidah is different from the weekday Amidah. This article has details.
  • Services on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur have the same elements, with considerable additions.
  • It takes time and practice to learn the service. This article may be some help for beginners.

Praying the Sh’ma

The Shema in a Siddur (Prayer Book)
The Shema in a Siddur (Prayer Book)

 

Sh’ma Yisrael! Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad!

Listen, Israel! The Eternal* is our God, the Eternal is One!

This week’s Torah portion, V’etchanan, contains the Sh’ma, the Jewish statement of faith. The Sh’ma is the first prayer a Jewish child learns and often the last prayer on the lips of a dying Jew.

A teacher once gave me an exercise that I still find useful:

1. Find a quiet place to sit.

2. Say the first word of the Sh’ma: “Sh’ma.” Say it aloud, and listen to it.

3. Think about what that word means. Let your mind flow to other possibilities than the usual “Hear.” Or let your mind linger on the sound of the word. It’s up to you. (You can do this either in Hebrew or in English. Do what is comfortable for you.) Let your mind play with it until it is ready for something new.

4. Take a moment to be completely silent. Then take the next word, “Yisrael.” Say it aloud. Listen to it. Think about what all the various things the word means to you. Let your mind linger on it for a while.

When you are ready, proceed through the rest of the Sh’ma, one word at a time.

Sh’ma. Yisrael. Adonai. Eloheinu. Adonai. Echad.

Listen. Israel. Name of God. Our God. Name of God. One.

Now here’s my question: What does the Sh’ma mean to you? 

*The actual word in Hebrew is the Name of God, which Jews do not pronounce. You may fill in with “Adonai,” “HaShem,” “The Eternal,” “Lord” or whatever works for you. Or you may simply be silent.

 

 

 

Hear, O Israel!

"Understand" in ASL
“Understand” in ASL

Shema, Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad!

Hear, O Israel, the Eternal is our God, the Eternal is One!

When I served Temple Beth Solomon of the Deaf in Southern California, I worked to learn how to say my prayers in ASL, American Sign Language. As is always the case with translation, there were some tricky bits about making the words of the prayers truly available to the congregation.  The first word of the Shema, the central prayer of Judaism, is usually translated “hear.” The problem is that to say that word to a group of Deaf people would lose the very essence of the prayer, because it immediately exclude them.

This dilemma is handled in various ways in various Deaf Jewish communities, but at TBS, they use the sign for “understand” to translate “Shema.”

This led me to think about other ways to translate the Shema into English.  “Hear, O Israel” always seems formal and, well, rather passive, and the passage itself, (Deuteronomy 6:4) is emphatic, not passive. Here are my thoughts:

Listen, O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is One.

LISTEN UP! Israel:  Adonai is our God, Adonai is One!

Get it straight, Israel: Adonai is our God, Adonai is One.

Or perhaps the best translation I can imagine would be:

(((SHOFAR BLAST))) – Israel! Adonai is our God! Adonai is One!

How would you translate that word?

Mysteries of Judaism

English: MY MOTHER LIGHTING SHABBAT CANDLES IN...

Sometimes it may feel as if Judaism is full of secret codes and handshakes, and for a newcomer, it can be overwhelming. You may have seen someone gesture over Shabbat candles, or do a little bobbing thing during prayer, or hold a tallit [prayer shawl] in an unusual way, and wondered, “Why are they doing that?”

Judaism is full of small rituals, and sometimes those little rituals can make newcomers to the community feel like outsiders. If you are the one who doesn’t know why the person you are talking with suddenly breaks out with “Pooh, pooh, pooh!” it can be alienating.

The most important thing to know about most of these is that like the many mysterious rituals of the Passover table, a lot of these rituals exist to encourage questions and discussion. They get started somehow (some we know, some we don’t) and then various explanations attach to them, and we’re off and running with a tradition. Some of these are quite lovely, for instance:

If you watch me during the section of the daily service called the Shema and its Blessings, you will notice that during a certain prayer, I gather up the corners of my tallit [prayer shawl], wrap the fringes around the fingers of my left hand, and then use that hand to cover my eyes as I say “Shema Yisrael!  Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad!” [Hear, O Israel! Adonai is our God, Adonai is One!]

I was taught to do that by Rabbi Ben Hollander, z”l, when I was a first year student in rabbinical school, in Jerusalem. He taught me that there are words in the prayer which refer to the gathering in of all the scattered Jews of the world, so I should gather up my fringes and hold them during the Shema, as if gathering up the Jews myself. As for covering my eyes, I do that because there is a story in the Talmud (Berakhot 13b) where Rabbi Judah the Prince covers his eyes to concentrate while he says the Shema prayer. Since then, we cover our eyes at that point – either to concentrate, or to emulate a great rabbinic soul.

Are any of these things necessary in order to be a good Jew? No.

However, when you are curious about something you see someone do, ask!  If you like the practice, you may want to adopt it yourself. Asking marks you as someone who is eager to learn, and learning is a mitzvah.  Rabbi Hillel said in Pirkei Avot, “The shy will not learn.” So ASK!

If there’s a ritual you’ve seen and wanted to ask about, feel free to ask here! If I don’t know, I will have a good time looking it up or … asking someone!

P.S. – There may be things you wonder about in this article. I have tried to link each of them to a good explanation. Just click on the link to learn. If you still have questions, ask!