By: Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson,
Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
Put yourself in Jacob's place. Laying on his death bed, he is filled with apprehensions about the special way of understanding God and the world that his grandfather, Abraham, established. It wasn't so long ago, he must have mused, that everyone worshipped a multiplicity of deities, that people sacrificed children to their gods, that they gashed themselves with knives as part of a religious fervor, that cultic prostitution was an integral part of worship.
Abraham's insight changed all that. By recognizing that the diversity of nature is only apparent, that beneath that variety is an underlying unity, Abraham was able to recognize that all things are linked to that one source of life, and that Source, God, demands justice, morality and compassion. He and Sarah were able to transmit that heritage to only one of their sons, to Isaac. Isaac and Rebecca were able to pass this vital truth on to only one of their sons, to Jacob, who was also known as Israel.
And now, nearing the end of his life, the weary patriarch must have feared for the future of this precious insight. His twelve sons were an unlikely source of religious heroes. Marred by their propensity toward violence, their explosive tempers and their jealousy, they had given Israel abundant cause for alarm throughout their young adulthood. Could he trust them to hold fast to the central legacy of Judaism -- one God who is passionate about ethics, who infuses moral fervor with ritual profundity?
Just before he is about to die, Jacob summons his children to gather around his bed. He tells his sons, "Come together, that I may tell you what is to befall you in days to come." Then, rather than beginning his list of predictions, he interposes the comment, "Assemble and hearken, O sons of Jacob; ve-shim'u el Yisrael avichem (Hearken to Israel, your father)."
The Rabbis were struck by the unexpected disruption -- why didn't Israel simply continue with his predictions for each son? They also noticed that the language of this digression sounded very much like one of Judaism's most famous declarations, "Sh'ma Yisrael." That had to be more than coincidence.
Midrash Devarim Rabbah makes explicit why Israel digresses, and why this verse echoes the lines of the Sh'ma. From where did the Jewish People merit to recite the Sh'ma? From the death of Jacob, who called all the tribes and said to them, "Perhaps after I perish from the world, you will worship other deities?" The sons responded to their father, "Hear, O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai alone."
The Rabbis used the fact that the third patriarch, Jacob, was also called Israel. Thus, the Sh'ma could be understood as addressed not to the Jewish People, but to Jacob himself. The use of similar language between the Sh'ma and what Jacob says to his sons confirms that reading. So the midrash develops a dialogue between the Patriarch and his descendants.
Fearful that they maintain a superficial loyalty to Judaism out of deference to their father, he asks them whether they will turn from Judaism once he has died. In unison, the sons respond, "Listen, Dad, Adonai, the God our great-grandfather recognized as the exclusive sovereign of the world, is our only God. We'll stick with it, not for your sake, but for our own and for God's."
In response to his sons' fidelity and conviction, Jacob exclaims, "Baruch Shem Kevodo l'olam va-ed (praised be God's glorious sovereignty throughout all time)." The Sh'ma, then, becomes a living drama in which the latest generations of Jews promises those who have come before us that our loyalty is undimmed by years, that our faithfulness to the covenant of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Rachel and Leah still motivates our deeds and informs our identity.
How many Jews remember keeping a kosher home to care for an observant grandparent or parent! And how many have allowed those precious practices to evaporate, the inheritance of millennia past vanishing in the short space of a single lifetime? Isn't it time to stand with the children of Jacob, swearing our renewed loyalty to the Jewish calendar, the sacred deeds and practices of our ancient heritage, to renew our loyalty to the God of Israel?
Can we, in honesty, conjure the memories of Bubbes and Zeydes, of childhood Rabbis and the great scholars, martyrs and leaders of our people throughout history and tell them that their God is still our God, that their legacy is apparent in the food we eat, the rituals we observe, and the deeds of loving kindness that we practice? Can we give Jacob the same assurance and comfort that his sons were able to provide?