The Shema Bracelet
Shana Tova! Good Yontif. Happy New Year to Everyone! It is a pleasure and an honor to bring in the New Year together with you today. And, welcome to the journey of the holidays that we love so much, that we call it by so many names, Rosh Hashanah, the High Holidays, the 10 days of repentance, the Day of Judgment, Day of Shofar blasts, and my personal favorite, Yamim Noraim, perhaps translated as the Days of Awe, but I prefer to translate it as the AWESOME Days! Welcome everyone, to your Awesome Days, as we bring in the Jewish New Year 5776, here at the friendliest shul in Little Rhody, Torat Yisrael.
Today I’d like to share with you, one of the ways I think that all of us, can weather the storms of the upcoming year. We will begin with some lessons from my summer jersey shore moments, then what I call the Jewish version of the iphone (the we-phone), And… that’s not all, we’ll all take-home a real cracker jack prize, designed especially for this year, to challenge us, to connect us, and to provide us with support and remind us that life is not about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning to dance in the rain!
EVERY summer for many years now, my family has kept to our ritual. All 13 of us, my mom, dad, sister, aunt, cousin, our better halves, and all of our kids stay at the same house on the Jersey Shore that is just big enough to fit this whole unruly clan.
We start our ocean pilgrimage from three different states. Stuffing every crevice of our cars with bags, bikes of all sizes hanging off the back of the car. Since we traded in our minivan for a civic this year I had to strap a carrier bag to the roof and every time we went above 60 it buzzed and moaned like a Harley in heat. Somehow my older sister and brother in-law always get the nicer bedroom with it’s own bathroom, while we get the kids bathroom with their wet sandy floors and gobs of toothpaste everywhere. So we fling ourselves at one another for seven days and seven nights. That’s right: a solid week of marinating in sunscreen, ice cream and finding sand in strange places. With a more expansive stretch of “quantity time,” there’s a better chance that I’ll be around at the precise, random moment when my Dad needs me to put sunscreen on his back (surprisingly supple!). Or when all of the kids are doing something that reminds us of an incident from our childhood that makes us laugh uncontrollably, and suddenly the cozy, happy chain of our love is cinched that much tighter.
On the second morning I was up very early, so I went for a walk by myself on the beach at sunrise, without telling anyone, I just slipped out. And that morning I had what I call my Shema moment. You may have had one of these before, or something like it. It was very quiet, The sky was just turning blue, just me and the ocean. As I approached the high tide line my breath slowed down and settled into rhythm with the crashing waves.
breathing In as the water drew back, and breathing out as the waves crashed forward.
The orange fiery ball of the sun just peaking up over the end of the ocean. The ripples were shimmering silver, blue, and orange all the way to the horizon. I could sense that there was something else out there on the other side of the ocean.
I closed my eyes and zoomed up and out like google earth, high up over the ocean, and imagined Israel 6,000 miles away to the east. I zoomed out even further, up above the atmosphere into space and imagined looking down at this great living being we call planet earth. The ocean reminded me at one and the same time that I was so small compared to all that came before me, and all that will come after, yet I felt significant to be a part of the body and soul of planet earth. Everything so interconnected- it got me thinking about my deep love for my children, how I can almost not even remember what life was like before them, or what life G-d forbid would be like without them, and this fearful love made my heart pump fast, my stomach drop and my mind race all at the same time.
I felt the need to say something to express this intense feeling of love and Oneness. So I closed my eyes and I and said, “Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad.” Hear O Israel, the Eternal is our God, the Eternal is ONE. When I got the part where you say in Hebrew, “bind these words as a sign upon your hand and a symbol before your eyes.” I went to touch and kiss the tefillin box on my arm that contains the Shema prayer and I remembered that I was not wearing tefillin, just then a wave of cold water rushed in kissed my feet. And in that moment the ocean became my tefillin that symbol of the grand Oneness before my eyes, I felt like crying and laughing at the same time. I got it. I heard the still, small voice, the ancient whisper, the voice within. And that is when…
My cell phone rang… it was Valerie, Where are you? The kids are up we need your help. The great shofar was sounded as it were, and it was back to being busy till we fell asleep again. I buried this moment for a while, it seemed so precious. It left me feeling vulnerable, exposed. Its like a buried treasure that I have the map to and can return to when I need it, when I’m having a challenging life moment the treasure just reappears. Last Friday night I came home from services and found that both of our children had fallen asleep in our bed. Valerie was in there checking Aeden’s blood sugar and it was very low. He has type 1 diabetes so Every time this happens I get this painful flash of fear and love at the same time. What if he goes into diabetic shock or God forbid a coma? What if we miss it next time? We snapped into action, I ran to get a juicebox
And Valerie gently guided the straw into his mouth so that she wouldn’t wake him up.
As we listened to his slurping we both felt a wave of calm return, and I realized that I had rushed out of the house after dinner without blessing the children as I usually do on Friday night. As we placed our hands on their heads to bless them, memories and thoughts about each of them flashed before me in the dark. Each child so precious, each child is an entire world. Lying their asleep they looked so vulnerable, delicate, and naïve yet also so powerful and charged with solidifying the outcome of their life’s journey.
Tears began to flow as I pondered their highs and lows and the great hopes I had for each one of them. I prayed, as only a father can pray for his child.
My Shema moment came back to me, I felt in my heart how the Holy One loves us, with the same intensity we feel towards our children. Sometimes it feels like I love them so much that it hurts. Whether its our kids, our parents, our present or past loved ones, a close friend, even a pet - we all have the potential for deep, amazing and sometimes painful love. It’s the feeling or impulse that binds us together so tightly that we would do just about anything for someone. Its why the sandwich generation feels particularly squeezed - love from both sides - taking care of children on the one hand and caring for elderly parents on the other. Remembering the power of this kind of love is one of Rosh Hashana’s gifts. It is where we can turn and return to when we need to refuel, reboot, and renew our lives.
We see it in the Unetanah tokef prayer. Before we sing about “who shall live and who shall die, who shall be at peace and who will be troubled,” before we sing that on that day the great shofar will be sounded and the still small voice is heard, we sing, “unetanah tokef k’dushat hayom/Let us speak of the sacred power of this day! Profound and awe inspiring. It says that, On this day, G-d’s sovereignty is celebrated, and G-d’s place is established with love.”
This is indeed an awesome and uniquely powerful daybut we don’t have to wait for Rosh Hashanah to come around each year to experience this love. Every morning and evening our daily prayers literally surround the central prayer, shma, with love. Sandwiching the shma is the ahava raba prayer, affirming G-d’s great unconditional love for all of us that same painful, laughing, crying love that we can feel, G-d has for us too,
and then after Shema is v’ahavta, affirming that God needs us to give that love back
(b’chol levavcha, uvchol nafshecha) with all of our heart, all of our soul and all of our might – that same painful, laughing, crying love that we can feel with each other, we are to share that love with G-d. And it is these very words that we are commanded to teach to our children, speak them when we sit in our homes and when we go along on our ways, when we lie down and when we rise up. And place a mezuza with the Shema on our doorposts to remind us of of this love every time we enter our homes,
But we need something more, How do we carry those moments of truth, love, and Oneness around with us? When life is moving to fast for us to appreciate it, we need a sign like the ocean, that reminds us to stop for a moment and listen for the still small voice. Rabbi, nu? Even in “The Ocean State” we can’t carry the ocean around with us.
Although, my Zayde used to say that if you hold the shofar up to your ear and listen closely like this… But as we face the realities of the totally unknown I can hear the still small voice among the loud sounds of our lives, the still small voice, of the shma. The Shema – It’s The Jewish version of the Iphone… the WE-phone, it’s the shma prayer, that connects us in a way that not even the most advanced technology can. It connects us to our past, our present and our future all at once. Its also much more reasonably priced, it’s beyond short-lived apps, and the best part is it never, needs charging. However, every day we are in need of charging.
(hand out shma bracelets - still available in Rabbi’s office please come take one!)
Today, I would like to give each of you the gift of the we-phone (the Shema), and a sweet new way to receive daily reminders from your we-phone, the Apple and Honey watch, But like all good plans, its got just a couple of strings attached. I’d like to invite you to join me in the Shma challenge from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, and hopefully beyond So please try on your wristband right now, and wear it during these Awesome days, or put it in a place where you will see it every day. Take a moment to tune in right now as you try it on. How does it feel to wear it? How does it connect you?
It is said that when our forefather Jacob was dying in Egypt, he told his children (who were literally the children of Israel), he told them that he was worried about the future of his people, would his faith and legacy continue, would they ever make it back home?
They looked into their father’s eyes and said these words: Shema Yisrael Listen our father whose name is Yisrael, Adonai is our God and Adonai is ONE. When we look at the shma, we are reminded that we are that legacy of Israel, When we say the Shema we are saying to our ancestors, Shma Yisrael, Hear O Israel, that we are still here, and we are proud of who we are!
But what if you are struggling with what it means to be Jewish? What if you are wrestling with the very idea of God? Well, then you are one of us, the children of Israel.
When he was young Jacob earned the name Yisrael after he won an all night wrestling match with an angel. The angel gave him this name Yisrael which means “God wrestler.”
This inner struggle to pin down the Truth and wrestle down blessings is the literal definition of our people’s name.
The Shma connects us to the past, and it also puts us in the present. Listen, we are reminded, otherwise you might miss that still small voice, that opportunity, that fleeting moment that is the essence of life. There is so much in today’s world that vies for our attention, that threatens to even tear us into pieces, and the shma, reminds us that Oneness, feeling at-One, Uniqueness, acknowledging that each and every one of us is amazingly unique, is not only important for G-d, but for us as well. Shema means to listen, and listening is how we do the main mitzvah of Rosh Hashana - to experience that which can’t be expressed in words but can only be sounded through the blasts of the shofar.
The Shema also connects us to our future, it is a pledge to continue living our life infused with Jewish values, culture, and meaning. Please Join me in taking the Shema challenge. Let it remind you to say the Shema, but more importantly, let it remind you to DO Shema – to “tune in and listen.” Throughout the day, when your signal gets weak and you lose your connection, wherever you are at that moment you can always look down at the letters of the name YHWH, God’s wifi password.
I invite you to look down now at the third word from the right, the one with no vowel dots under it. This password has been kept secret and hidden by our people for over five millennia. When Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Miriam were searching for God’s signal they used this password. For centuries, Jews have avoided "pronouncing" this name by instead saying "Adonai," the Hebrew for "my Lord." But when you try to pronounce the letters as they are written with no vowels, what comes out is – a breath, the sound of the wind. In the very beginning of the Creation story, ruach – the Spirit, the wind, the breath of life itself – hovers over the world that has not yet quite appeared. Adam is sculpted out of the adamah earth and given the breath of life. This face or name of God, the “Interbreathing of All Life,” is universal and it is encoded in the very sound of our own breath. As Rabbi Arthur Waskow teaches, “breathing… it ain’t Hebrew, or Egyptian, or Sanskrit, or Latin, or English,— it’s all of them.” Breathing is at the core of all languages including the wailing of the shofar. And it is not only human beings that breathe, but all life on Earth.
We can breathe in, because the “green faces of God” —trees— breathe out. the Interbreathing of all Life, the ONE that sustains all living things, that intertwines, and inter-breathes between the trees and the grasses and ourselves. As Rabbi Bob Zimmerman said, “The answer my friend is blowin in the wind, the answer is blowin in the wind.” So the Shema isn’t about seizing the moment, it’s really more about letting the moment, seize us. We don’t have to be in a national park or on the edge of the ocean. This is the only place you need to be right here, right now. The Shema isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning to dance in the rain.
(PRACTICE YHWH BREATHING and say the Shema together)
Now that you have God’s password, you can use it anytime to connect with the ultimate worldwide web. Why are we instructed to wear the Shema as a sign on our hands? Because our hands are the parts of our bodies that make contact with the world
Our hands are the extension of our hearts, they connect us and make us one with the world around us. Over the next ten days, as take the Shema challenge, May we find Shema moments each day, moments that bring us closer to each other and closer to the One, and may we bind these moments to our hands, as a symbol before our eyes when we sit in our homes and when we go along on the way, when we lie down and when we rise up.
Shana Tova tikateivu v’teichateimu
May we all be signed sealed and delivered for life, good health,
and many more Shema moments…
Rabbi Aaron Philmus
Rabbi Aaron brings a traditional style and approach of prayer to the conservative synagogue. He has a background in ecology and Jewish education and teaches Torah through agriculture and wilderness skills, and plays guitar as a way to bring music to the synagogue. He’s a naturalist who believes that everything stems from nature, and he understands the plight of others who are less fortunate, and how to use the land to enrich ourselves.