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Listen up: communal poem-making needed


Like most Jewish kids, the first prayer I learned was the Sh’ma. I said it every morning & evening, as prescribed, starting at age 9. The first prayer I stopped saying, a handful of years later, because I wasn’t sure I believed either in God or in prayer was the Sh’ma. I’ve come back to it many times as an adult, sometimes for months, reciting it morning & evening, and then — poof! I stop one day and it goes unsaid something prompts me to take it up again. I have a similar relationship with the prayer giving thanks for making it through the night (and with watching my sugar intake and a whole host of other things).

The words of the prayer as traditionally translated are Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One! But this translation – and yes, it’s based on the Hebrew – is the one I much prefer –

Listen God-wrestlers! YHWH (i.e., a god whose name we can’t pronounce) our God, YHWH is One.

Listening. Check. Wrestling with the ineffable. Check. A communal faith. Check. The ultimate unity of the universe. Check, check. See how great a prayer it is in just a few short words. And what follows – inscribing the Torah on your heart, teaching it to your children, putting it up on your gates, etc.

I bring all this up because this week’s Torah portion, Va’etchanan (I pleaded – referring to what Moses did when God banished him from the promised land), contains not only a reprise of the 10 Words/Commandments, but also the Sh’ma. And try as I have over the years, I do not have a poem to post. I’ve written several that are built on the Sh’ma, respond to it, or question it – but not one that even comes close to capturing what I’m trying to say (which if I knew what that was, would probably be easier).

Here’s where you come in. Some time between this Shabbat and the next, please send me your words of wisdom, spiritual connection, or intellectual musings about this central Jewish prayer. Nothing is too big or small, too weird or contrary, heartfelt or out of bounds. You can add post to the comments section or send it to me directly by email (so no one else has to see) at swartzsue(at)gmail(dot)com. Of course, if you’re reading this post 3 months from now, feel free to respond. You might be the comment that puts me over the top.

For a complete translation into English, click here.

Can’t wait to see your comments. I promise a poem by this time next year in the Torah cycle, if not sooner!

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Victoria Hilkevitch Bedford permalink
    07/24/2010 4:36 am

    I will be back from Israel on Tuesday very jetlagged no doubt but how can I resist this inviation? Will try to weigh in. Very busy at the moment.

  2. judith rose permalink
    08/02/2010 2:10 pm

    At first I thought – ok – works as a universal mission statement – 6 words in Hebrew followed by much commentary, some inconsistencies – ‘love ..with all your heart – yet ‘do not follow after your heart and after your eyes which lead you astray’ very much like the parent saying ‘I want you to have a good time, but be home at 11:00 — when all the fun starts at 11:00 or a congregation’s set of bylaws.
    Interesting to pull out the basic verbs – teaching, diligence, listening, speaking, binding, loving, writing and the basic nouns: heart, home, children, doorposts/gates – what more is there to life?
    Curious to hear from those out there about the Shema as it relates to the tune/music it is most often sung to. To me the Shema sounds like a hopeful promise as each of the first 4 words – shema yisrael, adonai elohanu each end on a high note – a questioning note and then adonai ehad is a shutting of the door, a firm affirmation of one. sort of ‘can I, will I, of course.’ It is the one tune that I really don’t like sung any other way but the ‘original’ (is it the original?)
    meanwhile – I just received Thomas Mann’s book called ‘The Tables of the Law’ which starts with Moses in Egypt (not sure where it ends as haven’t finished yet) – but short book or long short story – highly recommend it.

    • sue swartz permalink*
      08/03/2010 9:07 am

      So I looked it up: there are multiple melodies for the Sh’ma. The one most often sung in Ashkenazi – and therefore American – synagogues was composed by Solomon Sulzer in the mid-1800s in Vienna. Hardly the first and original rendition. Personally, it is one of my least favorite takes on the prayer, but to each her own.

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