Shema story resonates with young people in today’s world and hope

Shema story resonates with young people in today’s world and hope

Vayechi, Genesis, 47:28-50:26

Parshat Vayechi  (and he lived) is the last portion in Bereshit (Genesis).  It serves as a bridge between the chronicles of the patriarchs and matriarchs in Bereshit and the enslavement and extraordinary deliverance of the Hebrew people in Shemot (Exodus).

Beginning with the emotional first meeting of Jacob with his grandsons Ephraim and Manasseh, it continues with Jacob’s adopting them as his own sons, and his individual blessings upon them and his 12 other sons.  Although the blessings are unequal (indeed, some might be interpreted as curses), there are enough blessings to go around in this generation.

Jacob dies at the age of 147, and his body is taken to the land of Canaan for burial by his sons, as he has requested.  Joseph and his brothers return to Egypt, fully reconciled, and the portion ends with Joseph’s death.  The return to Egypt leads inexorably to the future enslavement of the Hebrew people.

The scene with Jacob’s sons gathered around his deathbed is the subject of one of my favorite midrashim.  In Devarim Rabbah 2:35, our sages offer a homiletical explanation for the second line of the Shema: “Baruch Shem kavode, malchuto, l’olam va-ed.”  They propose the following:

Jacob is dying and, in his last moments, he fears that his sons will not remain true to Judaism.  They attempt to reassure him by loudly proclaiming, “Shema, Yisrael, Adonai, Eloheinu, Adonai Echad.”  

The translation in this case is, “Listen, Israel (one of Jacob’s two names) — Adonai is our God (too), and we believe in the one God,” signifying that they accept monotheism and will carry forward the religion of their father, grandfather, and great-grandfather.  A relieved Jacob responds, in the small voice of a 147-year-old on his deathbed, “Blessed is Adonai’s glorious majesty forever and ever.”  According to the rabbis, this is the reason we say the first line of the Shema loudly (with the strength of 12 sons) and the second line softly (in the manner of the dying, but satisfied Jacob).  I have taught this midrash many times to different ages of students, and it always has produced what I like to call a “pin-drop” moment.  Not only are the students completely quiet during the telling, but most remember this teaching years later.  Something in this midrash resonates and stays with us.

In recent months, the American Jewish world has been rocked by the findings of the Pew Research Center 2013 Survey of U.S. Jews. One of the most notable statistics cited is the percentage of Jews who identify as Jewish on the basis of religion.  “Ninety-three percent of Jews in the aging Greatest Generation identify as Jewish on the basis of religion.  By contrast, among Jews in the youngest generation of U.S. adults — the Millenials — 68 percent identify as Jewish by religion.”  A loss of 25 percent in three generations (Abraham to Jacob, or Isaac to the 12 brothers and one sister) is very troubling, and understandably has been the subject of much discourse in The Jewish Chronicle and the larger Jewish community.

While synagogue leaders can only view these statistics with alarm, we may find guidance in this week’s parshah.  On his deathbed, Jacob’s primary concern is that his sons will continue to be Jews.  Worship is implied, but not stated.  In a similar vein, the Pew Study reports that “American Jews overwhelmingly say they are proud to be Jewish and have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.”

Yes, religious leaders want to touch our worshippers spiritually, fill our pews, and maintain our religious institutions, but the Pew Study suggests another story — that Jews are finding their identity in a number of outlets — and not just in the pews.  At the same time, there are Jews dropping out of the community completely. Our outreach to these at-risk Jews must highlight the many factors that attract Jews to their faith.  If we can get them to a first step (a figurative proclamation of the Shema), then we can concentrate on the next steps of cementing them to their rich cultural and religious heritage, and a literal recitation of the Shema.

Many of us in the western Pennsylvanian Jewish community are reacting to the findings of the Pew Study. Many of us will meet, strategize, and attempt different solutions, as Jews always have done when faced with adversity.  We have battled assimilation before (think Chanukah).  I pray there may come a time when, once more, 12 out of 12 of our brothers (and sisters) will proudly proclaim the Shema, the watchword of our faith.  Chazak, chazak, v’nit’chazek!

(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)