Hearing the Call of Torah

By Howard Steiermann

July 25, 2007

Howard Steiermann, a San Francisco Wexner Heritage alumnus, is motivated by his experiences as a son of German refugees, as a gay man, and by trying to find a great-tasting, low-fat, chocolate chip cookie. He is past Board President of the Brandeis-Hillel Day School, has served on numerous Jewish and Community boards and was the 2000 recipient of the SF-JCF Young Leadership Award. He claims that all his communal work is trumped by his growing leadership capabilities around a mah jong table. He can be reached at HMSinSF@aol.com


I started studying Torah as an adult to actually read what I had assumed was an irrelevant book. Rabbi Alice Goldfinger, who led my first Torah study group, explained that it was Jewish tradition to grapple with the text and find in it meaning for our times.


Fast forward fifteen years, and that is still a question I ask: how is the text relevant in my life today.


In this week’s Torah portion, Va’et-chanan, we find the Sh’ma and Ve’ahavta prayers. While emotionally they touch me to my very core, I had never thought about them intellectually. I hadn’t considered that there would be various and different interpretations of them. While we’re familiar with the Sh’ma and the Ve’ahavta from our liturgy, some people don’t realize they are directly from verses here in Deuteronomy. The Ve’ahavta is a continuation of the Sh’ma. They have been considered “the diamond set into our crown of faith.” Also called our “watchword”, probably our People’s most oft-repeated written words.


For a little background, the Israelites are poised to cross over the Jordan River into the Promised Land. But God tells Moses that he will die and leave the People prior to them entering Eretz Yisrael. So, these words are part of Moses’ ‘Last Will & Testament’ if you will, taken verbatim from the Torah:


Sh’ma Yisroel Adonai Elohainu Adonai Echad. Here, O Israel, Adonai is our G-d, Adonai is One. You shall love Adonai your God 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. Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead; inscribe them on the doorposts of your home and on your gates.”


Bereshit, in which the world is created, may well be the seminal Torah portion since the creation of the world takes place including the first humans. However, this week’s Torah portion feels even more central to me. For me, what is compelling about the Sh’ma is its command to “Sh’ma”, to Hear. Since we cannot really hear without taking pause in our busy lives.


Over the centuries, scholars have studied, elaborated upon and given their interpretation of the Sh’ma. Some early rabbis taught that the Sh’ma is an affirmation of our partnership with G-d. Others taught that the phrase “Adonai our God” shows that humans are made in the image of G- d. This is exciting to me since contemporary scholars use this interpretation to prove that all humans, each and every one of us, are made in God’s image no matter ‘different’ we may feel or how ‘different’ others view us.


One of Judaism’s most learned teachers, Rashi, a French vintner in the turbulent 11th Century looked at the Sh’ma as expressing the hope that one day God would be recognized by people of all faiths which would in turn unite the world into one human family. Too bad that today, 900 years after Rashi’s time, the world still has yet to learn this lesson.


Maimonides stated that the Sh’ma was written with the thought that God is the One Power that creates all that is. Therefore, Jews came to understand that God cannot be symbolized or drawn as any kind of image. Nor does God share our human limitations, characteristics nor our feelings.


Nachmanides taught that Moses included himself in the Sh’ma’s declaration...Adonai is our G- d...so as to remind the Jewish People of our communal experiences and communal responsibilities.


A contemporary Torah commentary on the Sh’ma summarizes the essence of Jewish learning like this: “Throughout the centuries, Jews have recited the Sh’ma as the most important expression of their faith. They have regarded the words as ‘love letters,’ but they have also argued over their meanings, deciphering various messages as if these words contained clues to understanding their relationship to God. Today, the explorations and debates continue. The declaration of Jewish faith remains a source of inspiration and challenge.”


Over the years I have found that the Torah can be relevant in my life. But only if I take the time from my other pursuits to learn what it has to say. Or, said another way... only if I take the time to “hear” what it has to say.


May each of us have a long life to learn, to share and to grow. And may we choose to take pause in our busy lives to be able to listen, to hear, to Sh’ma.