Parashat Va'et'hanan

Loving God By Acting With Compassion

Our affirmation of the unity of God and our love for God serve as fundamental grounding principles for social action.

Print this page Print this page

The following article is reprinted with permission from SocialAction.com.

The Torah portion Va'et'hanan contains the Sh'ma, one of the great foundational statements of the Torah:

Sh'ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad
Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.

For centuries the watchword of the Jewish people, the Sh'ma has had a resonance and power unmatched by any other statement in Judaism. Books and commentaries have been written about it; countless Jewish children have learned the Sh'ma as their first prayer; countless Jews have died with the Sh'ma on their lips.

But the subtleties of meaning conveyed by the six words of the Sh'ma have changed over time. The earliest understanding--at a time when the Israelites were surrounded by pagan civilizations--may have been along the lines of "Hear O Israel, Adonai is our God, only Adonai." In other words, among all the other gods around, only Adonai is the Israelite God. Over time, as pagan gods faded away, the Sh'ma took on a subtly different meaning--that while Adonai is our God, in time Adonai will come to be acknowledged by everyone as the one and only God.

Another strain of thought, which has had a resurgence of popularity in recent years, focuses on the different aspects of divinity implied by the terms Adonai (Lord) and Elohim (God). While Elohim relates to the timeless, cyclical manifestation of God in the natural universe, Adonai is the Jewish God of transformation, the God who makes a difference, who liberates from slavery and brings about healing and creativity. As Rabbi Harold Schulweis has written in For Those Who Can't Believe, "divinity includes both the reality principle of Elohim and the ideality principle of Adonai. Adonai is the source of healing; Elohim, the life of the universe."

And, says the Sh'ma, both aspects are joined in the Divine. Adonai and Elohim are one and the same. What a radical notion that is, what a radical statement about the universe the Sh'ma becomes: yes to reality, and yes to transformation! Yes to nature (including human nature) and yes to healing. Yes to unchanging permanence and yes to constant becoming--ehyeh asher ehyeh, God's self-proclaimed name: "I will be what I become."

The Sh'ma can be seen as a fundamental principle for grounding social action and social transformation in a deep understanding of the limits of what is, as well as a boundless optimism for what can yet be achieved. In a conversation about the concept of Adonai and Elohim with the late Rabbi Ira Eisenstein, alav ha-shalom (may he rest in peace), he once remarked,

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Gilah Langer

Gilah Langner is a consultant and mother living in Washington, DC. She is co-editor of Kerem: Creative Explorations in Judaism.