In the Jewish prayer book, morning and evening, we have a love trio. The first part — Ahavat Olam or Ahavah Rabah — is about an everlasting and abundant love that surrounds us and is ours to access. The last statement— the V’ahavta— reminds us to teach and act with love in all we do and see, when we are home and when we are away. Sandwiched in between those two elements is the Shema. The Shema is open to lots of interpretations and translations that direct our hearts toward the nougat center of the meaning and not hang on the literal one. At Cool Shul, we translate it as: Hear this, humankind, God is in all of us, and we are all called One. It is during the Shema in which we contemplate and process that abundant love coming toward us before we send it back out to our homes and to the world.
The spiritual love of the prayer book isn’t intended to be interpreted as a romantic love, though this kind of love certainly should be the basis of any romance. This is a love steeped in listening and forgiving and acceptance. It’s the kind of love that has an openness to all humanity — even the humanity of a perceived enemy, for the Shema (the center of our trio and the center of the Jewish people) asks for all to hear the message we are delivering… that we are all One.
I was reminded of this love, based in listening and understanding, when I was on a group call with T’ruah, a Rabbis for human rights action group. We were there to discuss how to help our congregations heal during these times. For some of us, we are trying to make peace in communities bitterly divided over the current political climate, while others of us are attempting to pick up the pieces for and with our communities that are so despondent over what is going on in our country, they are finding it challenging to continue with normal life. During this phone gathering, we heard from the organizer most of us know as “the woman in the elevator,” who confronted Senator Flake during the Supreme Court hearings. Interestingly, she told us that her team didn’t really have a plan that day and had no idea if anyone might see them or listen to them in the small amount of time they had. Their presence was built solely on a sliver of hope. Her message to us was that the most important thing we can do to help our communities heal is to make sure their voices and their messages of hope are heard, by encouraging everyone and anyone to vote. Most of us will never have a moment like she did, when an elected official has to face us and listen. So, since none of us will likely find ourselves in an elevator with a senator, voting is our best bet. Yes we can be heard with bullhorns, through social media, through emails and phones calls, or maybe at a march or a rally, but the most powerful tool we have is at the polling place. Marching without voting means nothing.
One rabbi on the call reminded us that the Shema is not only about listening but also about being heard. And so the Shema says, “listen to me, this is important!” But if each us shouts, “listen to me!”, that means we also have to do a whole lot of listening. We can’t only speak. This is perhaps why the Shema is placed between two liturgical pieces about love. Because there is no real love without the ability to listen and the ability to be heard. Not with couples, not with families or friends, and not in government.
Now, I have never considered the Shema as a prayer to say while voting. There are other Jewish prayers that are prescribed to say when fulfilling a civic duty (for example, “blessed is the opportunity to pursue justice” or “blessed is the opportunity to engage in the needs of the community”). But how fitting it would be to invite the Shema into the polling place as we do our duty to be heard! And perhaps we can also say the Shema when we do anything that helps create fairer elections, such as fighting against voter intimidation, driving people to their polling places, or making sure our employees have time to vote without penalty. Because when we do any of these, we are fighting for all voices to be heard, not just the ones that align with ours. That is listening and being heard. That is the heart of the Shema: Hear this, all humankind, we are One.
I’ll see you at the polling place on Tuesday.