Shabbat Nachamu 5776 - 8/19/2016

Post date: Aug 18, 2016 11:57:42 AM

Parshat V’et’chanan, Deuteronomy 3:23 - 7:11

Following Tisha B’av, this week is Shabbat Nachamu – the Shabbat of comfort. Our Torah portion – V’et’chanan – begins with another lengthy recital of the rewards for following God’s commandments, and the punishments for failing to do so. Then, in D’varim chapter 6, beginning at passuk 4, we read the Shema and V’ahavtah. Possibly the most often recited passage in all of Judaism, the six words of the Shema embody Jewish history, culture, and pride.

Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, used to describe Judaism as the "three B's" - belief, blessing, and belonging. The Shema is singular in that it embodies and encompasses all three of these constructs at once. It is easy to see how the Shema encompasses belief. Unlike most all other religions that are based on dozens or hundreds of beliefs, there really is only one belief in Judaism; there is only one thing for which we Jews give ourselves permission to suspend our rational, evidence based, critical thinking, and that is to know for certain, that God is Universal.

It is easy to see how the Shema encompasses blessing. We say it to acknowledge God's presence in our lives, much as we say a blessing before eating food that acknowledges God as the ultimate source of our sustenance. But how does the Shema embody belonging?

The Shema begins with a command – hear! This is not a quiet, private moment, as we are often taught – I myself have reminded many a student to sit quietly and cover their eyes when reciting the Shema – but rather a proclamation. Listen, Israel – God is one! It is a proud statement, letting anyone nearby know that your God – our God – is one.

The external nature of the Shema is further evidenced in Rashi’s commentary. When writing about passuk 9 – uch’tav’tam al mizuzot beitecha uvish’arecha (and you shall write them on your houses and your gates) – Rashi clarifies that “gates” includes gates of courtyards, gates of provinces, and gates of cities. So not only are we to proclaim our belief in God, but we must do so publically, to outsiders – those who enter our gates.

This week, we have two ideas coming together – l’nachaim (to comfort) and lish’moah (to hear). Certainly, the Shema can be a prayer of comfort – people recite it as they lie down to sleep, or if death is imminent. But why? Why is proclaiming our faith in God proudly and publically comforting? Perhaps it is that reciting the Shema signals to us that we belong, and it is belonging that truly is our comfort.

The Shema is one of the first prayers we teach children, and one of the most frequently encountered in Judaism. It is how we quietly communicate our presence to one another – a mezuzah on the door, tzitzit hanging from one’s waistband. Just as Rashi reminds us that the Shema must signal to outsiders who we are, it also signals to one another that we are here. This is the comfort – the power to acknowledge our faith to others, and the unity that our faith brings to us all.

I have been thinking about belonging a lot as of late. Having recently moved to north Florida, I have a distinct feeling of not belonging. Signs all over Florida praise Jesus, and people openly talk about God guiding their lives in professional settings. To me – born and raised in the Puritan-informed and lawsuit-conscious Northeast – this is jarring. I don’t know what to say when people talk about God “winking” at them to tell them what to get a graduate degree in, or how to become part of a community that proudly displays a “We Love Jesus” billboard at the entrance to the town.

And it is uncomfortable. There is discomfort in not belonging, just as there is great comfort in knowing that one is accepted, and part of a community. Our challenge, I believe, is to continue to be a proud community that supports and comforts one another. It is not always easy, as it is easiest to disagree with those to whom you are closest. But we are one community – one people, with one faith. And we can comfort one another by acknowledging that we all belong. Differences set aside – we all belong.

Shabbat Shalom,

Yvonne Asher