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Love Till the End: Rabbi Akiva and the Shema

In Va’Etchanan, this week’s Torah portion, we read the Shema, the traditional Jewish credo. There we read:

Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our Gcd, the Lord is one . You shall love the Lord your Gcd with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day. Impress them upon your children. Recite them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up. ( Deuteronomy 6:4- 7)

About this Rabbi Eliezer asks, “If it says ‘with all your soul’, why should it also say, ‘with all your might’,  and if it says ‘with all your might’, why should it also say ‘with all your soul’?” (Berchot 61b) The Gemara goes on to ask,  ” Should there be a man who values his life more than his money, for him it says; ‘with all your soul’; and should there be a man who values his money more than his life, for him it says, ‘with all your might’.”  Rabbi Akiva responds claiming that ‘with all your soul’ means that even if Gcd takes away your soul. The rational for the seemingly extra language around the conditions of loving Gcd is to account for every situation a person would experience in life. 

There is no doubt that living in a modern culture the entire construct of belief in, let alone love of, God is challenging. Living in a post- Holocaust generation Rabbi Akiva’s claim seem impossible. How could such a violent Gcd which took away six million Jewish souls  be worthy of our love? It is not much easier to fathom how we could have a loving relationship with a dispassionate God that would allow the Holocaust to happen.

That Gemara it goes on to the tell the harrowing story of Rabbi Akiva’s resistance to the government. Despite their forbidding him to learn and teach Torah he risks his life and persisted. Eventually he was captured by government forces, imprisoned, and was taken to be executed for his crime of teaching Torah. There we read:

When Rabbi Akiva was taken out for execution, it was the hour for the recital of the Shema, and while they combed his flesh with iron combs, he was accepting upon himself the kingship of heaven. His disciples said to him: Our teacher, even to this point? He said to them: All my days I have been troubled by this verse, ‘with all your soul’, [which I interpret,] ‘even if Gcd takes your soul’. I said: When shall I have the opportunity of fulfilling this? Now that I have the opportunity shall I not fulfill it? He prolonged the word “ehad- one “until he expired while saying it.(Berchot 61b) 

This is a powerful story of self-sacrifice of a religious person. It is easy to understand how this story would give strength to our people throughout all of the generations facing the anti-Semitic murders of history. So while we might have our theological challenges today, this story always stands as a national mandate. We carry the memory of millions who like Rabbi Akiva went to their deaths saying the words of the Shema. And even in that moment I want to cherish how Rabbi Akiva lived more than how he died. Beyond being a person of faith he was a devoted teacher striving to teach his students until the bitter end. In a beautiful way this act of altruism of sharing his wisdom was born out of a life filled with grit and curiosity. Rabbi Akiva was troubled  his whole life trying to understand the meaning of the Shema. Even at this moment of pain so close to the end he was striving to understand and make meaning.

More than his death, Rabbi Akiva’s life forces me to the ask some questions.  When faced with such hatred would I have the fortitude to respond with love? When faced with the end would I still be as open to growing and learning? Even if I could figure this out would I have the presence of mind to share my thoughts? What will be my lifelong “trouble”?  If I answer all of these questions will I truly know what it means to love?

Out of Sight

In  Va’Etchanan, this week’s Torah portion we read the first paragraph of the Sh’ma -the Jewish credo. There we read:

Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words, which I command you this day, shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise up. And you shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes. And you shall write them upon the door-posts of your house, and upon your gates. (Deuteronomy 6: 4- 9)

These words are familiar to many of us. We rarely stop to think about what they mean. Surely we are even less likely to stop to ask why we cover our eyes when we say the Sh’ma?

One explanation is that for the Jewish creed, there is a presumption that God has no form. It follows that our deepest faith is in something that we will never experience with our eyes. In covering our eyes it is as if we are saying, “I believe in You/you even when I do not see You/you”. To what degree is this true for us in other relationships in our lives? Do we feel like we are part of this community even when we do not see each other?

On Monday we are sending our eldest child to overnight camp for the first time. Do we trust him even when we do not have an eye on him? Do we trust the staff of the camp to take care of him? The answers are yes and yes. And further, camp is an amazing place in which he will be able to explore “these words” at all points of the day and in all media of expression. It is important  that our son has the space to explore Judaism and his role in the  community  beyond our watchful eyes. I am confident that giving him this own space at camp will ensure his commitment to the Jewish project. The only question is how he will he keep connected with his camp friends after the summer when he can no longer sees them.

Cover Over

Today is Tu B’Av, the 15th of the Hebrew month of Av. On this Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel said:

Israel had no greater holidays than Tu B’Av and Yom Kippur, on which occasions the daughters of Israel used to go out in white garments, borrowed so as not to put to shame one who didn’t have a white garment. (Mishnah Ta’anit  4: 8).

What does today and Yom Kippur have in common? In the Talmud it seems to mark the start (today ) and end (Yom Kippur) of the grape harvest. But is there any other connection between these two days?   In some ways these two days seem to be at odds. On Yom Kippur we work on our relationship with God. The day atones for our sins against God and does not speak to all of our sins to our fellow human beings (aka most of our sins). In contrast, we see that on Tu B’Av the unmarried girls of Jerusalem would dress in white garments and go out to dance in the vineyards attracting mates. Where Yom Kippur seems to be solely between human beings and God, Tu B’Av seems to be solely between human beings and each other.

Maybe one of the answers to this comes from the Shma which we read in VaEtchanan, this week’s Torah portion. There we read:

4 Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one. 5 And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 6 And these words, which I command you this day, shall be upon your heart; 7 and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk on the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise up. 8 And you shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes. 9 And you shall write them upon the door-posts of your house, and upon your gates. (Deuteronomy 6: 4- 9)

Love is the key. For some, their relations with people flow from their relationship with God, and for most I would assume it is the opposite. It is in their experience of love in the relationship in their lives that they encounter the divine. On Tu B’Av they covered over their economic status to allow people to see each other and start relationships without that status clouding their vision. Similarly  Yom Kippur is the day we cover over ( kaparah) our sins and restart our relationship with God.  As we see in the Shma  we plaster love all over our lives. We say the Shma three times a day. We wear it on our bodies in the tfillin. We put it on the doors to our house in the Mezzuzah. And of course we teach it to our children.  There is no joy without love. How will we help our children see that Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel is right? There is no greater holidays than Tu B’Av and Yom Kippur. We should not cover this up. Love reigns supreme.

Get the Message

There are a lot of familiar parts to VaEtchanan, this week’s Torah portion. First of all we see the rehashing of the 10 Commandments and then of course we have the Shma.There is the Shma we read:

4 Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one. 5 And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 6 And these words, which I command you this day, shall be upon your heart; 7 and you shall teach them diligently unto your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise up. (Deuteronomy 6: 4-7)

There is a huge amount one can say on this short section which has become the central credo of the Jewish People. Today I want to focus in on a small section. What does it mean when it says,  ” which I command you this day”? About this Rashi explains:

They should not be in your eyes like an old edict to which a person does not attach importance, but rather , like a new one, towards which everybody runs. This notion of an old edict denotes an order of the king which comes in writing.  ( Rashi on Deuteronomy 4:6)

In simple terms, Rashi is saying that we are commanded to keep the words of Torah relevant to our lives. But how?

It is hard to imagine Jewish life without Rashi. Similarly it is hard to  imagine contemporary Jewish life without Franz Kafka. In many ways Kafka’s An Imperial Message is a super-commentary to Rashi’s comment here. Kafka’s parable reads:

The Emperor—so they say—has sent a message, directly from his death bed, to you alone, his pathetic subject, a tiny shadow which has taken refuge at the furthest distance from the imperial sun. He ordered the herald to kneel down beside his bed and whispered the message in his ear. He thought it was so important that he had the herald speak it back to him. He confirmed the accuracy of verbal message by nodding his head. And in front of the entire crowd of those witnessing his death—all the obstructing walls have been broken down, and all the great ones of his empire are standing in a circle on the broad and high soaring flights of stairs—in front of all of them he dispatched his herald. The messenger started off at once, a powerful, tireless man. Sticking one arm out and then another, he makes his way through the crowd. If he runs into resistance, he points to his breast where there is a sign of the sun. So he moves forwards easily, unlike anyone else. But the crowd is so huge; its dwelling places are infinite. If there were an open field, how he would fly along, and soon you would hear the marvelous pounding of his fist on your door. But instead of that, how futile are all his efforts. He is still forcing his way through the private rooms of the innermost palace. Never will he win his way through. And if he did manage that, nothing would have been achieved. He would have to fight his way down the steps, and, if he managed to do that, nothing would have been achieved. He would have to stride through the courtyards, and after the courtyards through the second palace encircling the first, and, then again, through stairs and courtyards, and then, once again, a palace, and so on for thousands of years. And if he finally burst through the outermost door—but that can never, never happen—the royal capital city, the center of the world, is still there in front of him, piled high and full of sediment. No one pushes his way through here, certainly not someone with a message from a dead man. But you sit at your window and dream of that message when evening comes.– Translation by Ian Johnston

It is said that Rav Nachman and Kafka were cut of the same cloth. Rav Nachman was a believer and for Kafka the King is dead.  It is a struggle in the modern era to imagine that were were handed anything other then an “old edict”.  If we seek meaning in our Jewish lives we need to hear the message and transform ourselves, our life styles, and our homes. I do not believe that Judaism will last if we are just sitting at home waiting by the window. That Judaism is never going to be relevant.

We need to re-imagine ourselves as divine partners bringing the message out to the world.  It is living the life of the messenger and raising our children to be messengers after us that the Torah is alive and is not just an old edict. In my moments of doubt I often think about this message that I have been schlepping around this whole time. Who wants to be just a postal worker? But, the message is not for me.  We are couriers of a love letter spending our days looking for the home of the lover.  This letter might bring love and comfort to the intended recipient. For that person I feel an urgency, how ever futile it might be, to get the message there. That is my daily duty. Who am I not do my job?

Hedgehog Torah

This Shabbat is Shabbat Nachamu commemorating our national recovery after the destruction of  Tisha B’Av. This Shabbat we read the Torah portion of Va’Etchanan. There we read,

29Be careful, then, to do as the Lord your God has commanded you. Do not turn aside to the right or to the left: 30follow only the path that the Lord your God has enjoined upon you, so that you may thrive and that it may go well with you, and that you may long endure in the land you are to possess. (Deuteronomy 5: 29-30)

In his book, Good To Great, Jim Collins quotes Isaiah Berlin’s use of a Greek parable. The parable says, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Both Berlin and Collins divide the world into
hedgehogs and foxes. For Collins, who systematically studied companies that made the leap from good to great, the common denominator to the companies that made the leap was that they were all hedgehogs. While, the foxes were scattered, diffused, and inconsistent, the hedgehogs practiced a discipline of delivering excellence in a focused and deliberate manner. In light of this week’s Torah reading it might be helpful to review the Hedgehog Principle and make sure you are not turning to the “right or left”.

Discipline and focus are the keys to making the leap from Mediocre to Mitzuyan ( excellent). The Torah asks us individually and as a nation to answer a few questions:

a) What are we most passionate about?
b) What do we do better than anyone else?
c) What is the team’s engine? What are our metrics of success that drive
us? ( Here is a clue- the answer is not Money)

After answering these questions, there should emerge a “sweet spot” which represents the overlap of the answers to these questions. The Hedgehog Concept is that we need to stay focused on working on this an not deviate from it to the right or to the  left.

For hundreds of generations we were able to keep our focus on a Jerusalem that we had never seen. In the 21st Century we have Jerusalem, but he have lost something else. Now Tisha B’Av needs to commemorate all of the destructions of old and all of the distractions of modern era. Forget about a Jerusalem, today we cannot focus on anything. We spend so much time multi-tasking that we have forgotten our mission. We will not make an enduring contribution to the world around us if we  waste our time “foxing” around. We need to heed the call of the hedgehog and focus to ensure that we make that leap from Mediocre to Mitzuyan.

– If you are interested in learning more about Mediocre to Mitzuyanmy monograph on Camp Leadership please be in touch hiorlow@gmail.com


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