Who will hear my Shma?
When I was 12, I was taught at the history class at my primary school that some Polish surnames ending with ‘ski’ are associated with a noble heritage. Excited, I came back home to ask my parents whether we also came from a noble family. My dad sighed and asked me to sit down in our living room. Subsequently, he told me and my twin brother that our real family name was not Krasniewski but Kirschenbaum, and that my grandparents changed their name to a Polish-sounding one due to anti-Semitism prevalent in post-war Poland. Moreover, my dad told me not to share the information about my Jewish heritage too openly with my classmates as he was afraid that I – just like him – might experience prejudice and exclusion. Unsurprisingly, after such an admonishment, I kept quiet about my Jewish roots at school. I was also hesitant to take part in the local Jewish community as its Orthodox character and dearth of youth activities did not seem particularly appealing. For that reason, I never got to celebrate my bar mitzvah in my early teens. It happened only much later, when the Polish Jewish community became more welcoming to young people and more open to pluralism. It was not an easy journey. It began with young people from my generation discovering their Jewish heritage and feeling, like me, drawn to Judaism but alienated by the community. Impatient, we started meeting privately to have Friday night dinners. With time, as our knowledge of Judaism and our spiritual needs grew, we also added Kabbalat Shabbat prayers to our Shabbat gatherings. Afterwards, due to the support of American benefactors, we were able to get our own premises where communal meals and prayers could be held. Finally, our fledgling community was able to employ a non-Orthodox rabbi, who was trained at HUC but had Polish ancestry. In this new, vibrant, egalitarian milieu I finally found the kind of Judaism that I could truly call my spiritual home. Having found it, in my early twenties, I finally got called up to the Torah for the first time. I was so inspired by this experience that I got involved in as many Jewish activities and projects as possible. By the end of my college years, I worked as a Jewish educator and, encouraged by the first rabbi who showed me the beauty of egalitarian, modern non-Orthodox Judaism, I applied to rabbinical school.
You might think now: Mati has just told us an interesting personal story, but how does it connect to this week’s parasha, Vayetchanan?
Well, the answer to this question is that Vayetchanan would have been my bar mitzvah portion, had I celebrated this ceremony just after my 13th birthday. Therefore, whenever I read it, I feel particularly committed to perpetuate the heritage of my ancestors, Polish Jews, to add the next link to this chain of tradition. It sometimes feels like a daunting task, as much of this heritage was forgotten or suppressed, just like Judaism in my family. When I am overwhelmed by this task, I make sure I find time to reread this week’s sidra. I usually look for Moses’ assurance given to the Israelites that the return from exile is possible, found in Devarim 4:29-30, where it is written,
But from there (from exile) you will seek the Eternal your God; and you shall find Him, if you search after Him with all your heart and with all your soul. In your distress, when all these things come upon you, in the end of days, you will return to the Lord your God, and listen to His voice; for the Eternal your God is a merciful God; He will not fail you, neither destroy you, nor forget the covenant of your fathers which He swore unto them.
These words bring me comfort, as their chief promise is that an individual return to God and the rebirth of a community after its near destruction are possible, if one is fully invested in pursuing them actively.
But how does one return to God? How does one affirm their Jewish faith?
Our parasha provides us with a text which became a standard liturgical affirmation of the Jewish faith – the Shma: hear, O Israel, the Eternal is our God, the Eternal is one.
Saying this verse aloud, we communicate to everyone who can hear our commitment to Judaism. Moreover, these words are addressed to the people of Israel, reminding us that one can only be Jewish in a community. However, they are also strongly related to family life. One is supposed to teach them to one’s offspring; many parents say them with their children just before going to bed.
As someone who has reclaimed my family’s Jewish heritage and as one of only a few rabbinical students from Poland, I am used to public affirmations of my Judaism, as many Jews outside of Poland do not expect to meet young Polish Jews. However, for a long time I did not feel emotionally connected to the domestic, intergenerational character of the Shma. I can see two reasons for it. Firstly, I did not learn it from my parents and grandparents, so for me it is not associated with fond childhood memories. Secondly, I don’t have any children yet, so I have not experienced teaching the Shma to the next generation.
My attitude to the intergenerational aspect of the Shma changed last year when I studied different midrashim on the book of Deuteronomy. One of them associates the words of the Shma with the last meeting of Jacob with his sons. According to this Midrash, Jacob was afraid that his sons will go astray once he passes away. Thus, in order to reassure him that they are committed to his God, they addressed Jacob by his adopted name, Israel, saying the Shma: hear, o Israel, the Eternal is our God, the Eternal is one.
This midrash taught me a very important lesson. It taught me that the Shma is not only about teaching Judaism to your children or affirming your belief in the present. On top of that, seen through the prism of this midrash, the Shma is also a way to connect with our ancestors from all generations, to tell them that in our life, which may be very different from their existence, Judaism is still present and important. In a way, saying the Shma is like a bar or bat mitzvah speech – it gives us an opportunity to acknowledge our family in all its complexity and to thank them for the heritage that they bestowed on us.
This new understanding of the Shma as a prayer that connects me to the past of my family, affirms my present faith and behooves me to ensure a Jewish future changed my relationship to parashat Vayetchanan. I used to read it with a tinge of sadness that I missed the opportunity to honour my family’s history at 13. Now, I know that, like the sons of Jacob in the Midrash, I am able to thank my ancestors and our common ancestor Jacob-Israel himself for my Judaism anytime I say the Shma. This Shabbat and next week, when you say the Shma, I encourage you all to think about those family members who taught you how to be Jewish: granddads who taught you a few words in Yiddish, grandmas who cooked the best Jewish food in town and left you the recipe, uncles who told you Jewish jokes, parents who made sure you went to your bar
or bat mitzvah class. I truly believe that, in a way that we can not fully understand, they will be there with you, saying the Shma together with you and all of Israel, from generations past, present, and future.