Parashat Va'et'hanan

Hear & Act

Primo Levi's poem gives us new insights into the Shema.

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This commentary is provided by special arrangement with American Jewish World Service. To learn more, visit www.ajws.org.

You who live secure

In your warm houses

Who return at evening to find

Hot food and friendly faces:

Consider whether this is a man,

Who labors in the mud

Who knows no peace

Who fights for a crust of bread

Who dies at a yes or a no.

Consider whether this is a woman,

Without hair or name

With no more strength to remember

Eyes empty and womb cold

As a frog in winter.

Consider that this has been:

I commend these words to you.

Engrave them on your hearts

When you are in your house, when you walk on your way,

When you go to bed, when you rise.

Repeat them to your children.

Or may your house crumble,

Disease render you powerless,

Your offspring avert their faces from you.

-Shema by Primo Levi

Why Shema?

Primo Levi wrote this poem in the shadow of the Holocaust, but his vision is especially relevant in the context of contemporary global inequity. It challenges all who live in comfort while others subsist in privation. Why does he use the frame of the Shema to do so?

Found in the center of this week's parashah, the Shema is a prayer declaring God's singularity: "Listen, O Israel! The Lord is our God. The Lord is one (Deut. 6:4)." The Shema is repeated twice daily: in the morning and at night. It is often the first prayer taught to a child, and, famously, the Shema has been recited as the last words of many Jewish martyrs.

Primo Levi, in titling his poem Shema, attempts to redefine this traditional prayer. His poem commands a single-minded focus not on the unity of God but on a sub-set of God's creatures, people living in poverty and chaos. Levi insists that human suffering is what our people should be "listening" to: as per the Shema, these sounds and images should be engraved on our hearts and follow us through our day. Effectively, they should be the frames of our experience.

Practically Speaking

How are we to hear this suffering? In one sense, it has never been easier. With the click of a mouse, one can access detailed information about any number of tragedies in the developing world. On the AJWS website, one can receive updates on Darfur, Zimbabwe, Burma, and too many other countries experiencing crises of violence, poverty, and disease.

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Rabbi Dorothy A. Richman

Rabbi Dorothy A. Richman is the Rabbi Martin Ballonoff Memorial Rabbi-in-Residence at Berkeley Hillel.