In our broader civic context, the challenge of articulating what makes Judaism more than a faith tradition is significant. When we encounter our neighbours, co-workers and friends who self-define as “of the Christian faith,” for example, we – and they – share an understanding that their self-proclaimed religious identity bespeaks a clearly encoded practice and belief system.
We are, of course, a people as well as a religion, and our peoplehood, while rooted in a sacred canon, is not bound together by singular practices and beliefs. The range within our communities is rich and dynamic.
The parshah Va’etchanan – to be read this year on the Shabbat falling on July 28 – offers many core texts, including the text known to so many: the Shema. Some recite it daily, others on their weekly or occasional participation in synagogue services. Children learn to recite it nightly. Adults with no connection to religious practice may quote it in perfect Hebrew.
The Shema may be regarded as the sole credo enshrined in our liturgy. As such, it may be contrasted with another significant text in our parshah, Aseret HaDibrot (the Ten Commandments). Early in the parshah, Moshe invokes Revelation and the covenant with God, repeating the Ten Commandments, and then later elaborates on the laws, much as he did when the Commandments were first given at Sinai.
The main translation variant that underscores the creedal notion of the Shema is of the final word, ehad. We might translate the word on its own: one. And, of course, the notion of the one God, faithful to the Israelites who profess faith and loyalty in return, is the distinctive religious core of Judaism. Not many gods: One.
In the early days following the destruction of the Temple, commemorated on Tisha B’Av (falling this year on July 22), there were many groups striving and claiming the mantle of the religion of the Temple. The rituals we practice now – in synagogues, in homes, on holy days – were beginning to be encoded in the Mishnah.
Were just the Ten Commandments to be read, chanted, or recited in prayer, it was thought, perhaps, it would seem that they, and only they, were at the basis of our religious beliefs. In addition to the concern about theological confusion, I like to think that there was an intuitive appreciation for the beauty, poetry and elegant pithiness of the Shema.
There is one God, one Unity, alone, one unique Source of Life. Certainly, the medieval Kabbalists understood, and demonstrated to us, that the number 10 holds significance as well. They conceptualized a tree of life with 10 spheres, as they engaged in their own struggle to discern the mysteries and delights of God, Torah and Israel.
The numeral 10, adding the integers, leads, of course, to one. Ten pairs of hands, each with 10 fingers, linked together create a minyan, when the One-ness of God may be proclaimed in community.
Tisha B’Av has launched us into the liturgical and spiritual journey towards the Ten Days of Teshuvah. May they bring you into closer awareness, appreciation, and awe of the One.