Vaetjanán – Shabat Najamú 5777 – English

By Rabbi Dario Feiguin
B´nei Israel Congregation, Costa Rica
“Shemah Israel” 

The Roman Government decreed the prohibition of the the study and practice of the Torah for the Jews.  According to the Agadah, Papus ben Yehudah found Rabbi Akiva publicly teaching the sacred texts.  “Akiva!  Aren’t you afraid of the government?  And Rabbi Akiva replied, “I’m going to answer you with a parable:              
A fox was walking along a river bank when he spied some schools of fish swimming from one side to the other.  “What are you running away from?” he asked.  “From the fishermen’s nets,” replied the fish.  The fox, as was his custom, pulled one of his tricks.  He said to them, “Wouldn’t you like to come out here and dry yourselves? This way, we can live in harmony, just as our ancestors did.”

They answered him, “And you’re the one they call the smartest among all the animals?”  You’re not the smartest; you’re the dumbest.  If we’re afraid in our own element, then out there, where we’re not at home, we’ll die for sure.”
“The same thing happens to us,” added Rabbi Akiva.  If we have difficulty living our own reality in our own environment where we study Torah, where it’s written that it is ‘Hayenu veorech yameynu’, ’our lives and the length of our days’, if we stray from it and we go outside of it, we’ll be much worse off!”
The same Agadah of the Talmud relates that shortly after this episode, Rabbi Akiva as well as Papus ben Yehuda were arrested and put in prison.  They met in jail, and Rabbi Akiva asked him, “Papus, who has brought you here?  He replied, “You are indeed fortunate, Rabbi Akiva, because you were imprisoned for concerning yourself with the Torah!  I was imprisoned for banal matters.”
When Rabbi Akiva was taken to be executed, it was the hour for reciting the Shemah, and while they were torturing his body with irons, he accepted the kingdom of the heavens upon him and upon his destiny.
His disciples asked him, “Dear Teacher, how much longer can you withstand this?” and he replied, “All my days I had problems trying to understand the verse ‘uvchol meodecha’, which literally means:  with all your ‘much’, that is to say ‘with all your soul’.  And I interpreted it this way:  ‘Even if He takes away your soul’.  And I asked myself, “When will I have the opportunity to comply with this?  And now that I have it, am I not going to comply with it?  And he drew out the word ECHAD, which means ‘one and only’, accentuating the last letter, ‘dalet’, and dying as he pronounced it.
And that is how we say the Shemah:  Drawing out the word ‘Echad’, and pronouncing the ‘dalet’ strongly, as if it were our last breath.
The Agadah says that at that moment, a celestial voice was heard, saying, “Happy are you, Akiva, because your soul has departed with the word ‘Echad’.
This week, in our Parashah, we read among other things, the Shemah, the declaration of faith of Judaism.
 ‘Shema Israel, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad’…Hear, oh Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.
Hear, oh Israel, Listen, because there is nothing to see or touch.
Hear and try to understand what is indispensable, to feel the mystery of the sublime, to hear the echo of His Presence.
He is One and not many.  He is the only one, different from all others.  He is the past, the present and the future.  He is eternal even in his symbolic four-letter unpronounceable name.  He is the God of all, the one who bestows the brotherhood of human beings, and marks the beginning and the guarantee of ethics, ethics based and preserved on the concept of monotheism, whereby, before Him, we are all equal, as brothers before their father.
We affirm these concepts when the day dawns, before beginning our daily lives and at dusk, before slowing down a bit, and resting.
This phrase, so short and so powerful, lays out the path before us.
It speaks to us of loving God, and transmitting that love to our children, and over generations to come.
 But, if you will permit me, there is something more than the revolutionary concept of ethical monotheism and the transmission of its values.
Starting with the Talmudic story of Rabbi Akiva, and since then over all of history, the Shemah has become a declaration that goes beyond faith that has to do with the very essence of being a Jew.
Even those Jews who claim to be non-believers hear these words and they get goose bumps.  Even Jews who do not observe the Mitzvot followed the example of Rabbi Akiva at the bonfires of the Inquisition, in the brutal pogroms of tzarist Russia and in the barracks of the Nazi concentration camps.
 Why?  It occurs to me that beyond the determining factors of faith and ethics, it confronts us with our very being.  Like someone who wants to run away from himself and cannot.  If I put it in Sartrian terms, I would say:  We are condemned to be ourselves, and the Shemah confronts us with this reality.
We can choose to fall prey to the fox of the moment and go outside of our own familiar environs, or try to look for the answers, though it may be difficult, within our own surroundings.
We can choose to reach our inevitable end like Papus ben Yehudah, without that enormous sensation of having found meaning in life, or wind up like Akiva ben Yosef, or perhaps like Moshe Rabeinu himself, who did not enter the Land of Israel as he had dreamed, but who died seeing from Mount Nevo, that his life was worthwhile, and that those who would come after him, would continue his work.
Perhaps one must live like the words of the Shemah, with all the fullness that we can muster, being thankful for every new day.  Maybe we have to look within our own natural surroundings, and not allow ourselves to be led astray by an uncertain world outside.  Perhaps we should try to leave that legacy to our children and those that come after them.  And perhaps, when our time comes, a voice from heaven will resound with meaning, and we will have the certainty that we have made the effort, and we will understand within our souls the true meaning of ‘Echad’, that oneness  which  will  bring us together again, for all eternity.
Shabbat Shalom!
Rabbi Darío Feiguin
B´nei Israel, Costa Rica.