August 22 is the International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief.
We all agree that throughout the centuries, far too many acts of violence have been committed in the name of religion. It seems to me the teaching of Judaism, when properly applied, would present a possible antidote to this evil.
For Jews, one of the most important verses in the entire Pentateuch is to be found in Deuteronomy 6:4. The verse states, “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” In Hebrew: Shema Yisrael YHVH Elohaynu YHVH Echad.
This verse is said twice daily in Jewish communal prayer. It is to be said before going to bed at night and upon waking in the morning.
In most Jewish homes, a handwritten passage of Deuteronomy 6:4-9 is found in a small decorative box (called a mezuzah) on the doorpost at the entrance to the home.
As a rabbi, I often recite this verse when visiting the sick. This verse is also said by those who are about to die, but if they cannot do so it is said before and then again right after death by a family member.
Why is this verse, which in Hebrew contains only six words, so important and why might it be relevant as a response to violence done in the name of religion?
The first Hebrew word, Shema, means more than “Hear;” it means “Listen!”
Two words in Hebrew indicate hearing. The first one comes from the same biblical root as the word for the “ear.” It most often means hearing something with our ears.
The word in this verse, Shema, implies a deeper type of hearing. It means we are to be quiet, to listen and absorb. This type of hearing is meant to influence our very souls.
The second word, Yisrael, means “the people of Israel.” The people of Israel are the descendants of Jacob who received the name Israel because he wrestled with God (Genesis 32:28).
It encourages all of us to become “God wrestlers,” people who engage and question God, not simply people who are motivated by blind faith.
The third word, YHVH, is commonly translated as “Lord.” Some biblical scholars pronounce this word Yahweh; others say Jehovah.
Without doubt, YHVH is the most important and holy of all of the names for God in the Hebrew Bible. But what is really behind this name?
If one tries to pronounce YHVH, one enunciates the sound of a human breath. YHVH is therefore a name that is an onomatopoeia for breath. It presents the Divine as the life-giving “Breath of the universe.”
The fourth word, Elohaynu, means “our God.” Its connotation is communal and plural. It is indicating the “Breath of the universe” is to be found within each and every individual.
It is another way of saying the image of God is to be found within every human being and within all life on the planet.
This is why Genesis 1:27, “So God created the human being in God’s own image” is so critical. See also Genesis 5:1, “When God created the human being, God made him/her in the likeness of God.”
The fifth word is YHVH, the “Breath of the universe.” The sixth word is Echad, which is the Hebrew word for “One.”
The way in which I would translate the verse would be “Listen deeply, you God wrestlers, the Breath of the universe is to be found in each and every one and thing, and that Breath is One.”
These six words are essentially a lesson in spiritual mathematics. In regular math, 1+1+1+1=4. But based on this verse, 1+1+1+1=1.
The significance of this is that we are all one!
No matter our race, religion, sexual orientation, national origin or other aspect of distinction, we are all children of the one God and created with an aspect of godliness, God’s image, implanted within us.
When I affirm that image of God’s likeness within myself, it should not be a difficult task to affirm it in others.
Spiritually, if all understood this and took it to heart, it would go a long way toward solving the world’s problems and would eliminate acts of violence based upon religion.
If anything, the terrible virus pandemic has shown us we who are the inhabitants of this blue-green spaceship that we call “earth” are indeed one.
However, we should ask this: Why does it really take something so horribly negative as a pandemic to help us understand this?
As a rabbi, I am hopeful we may learn the lesson of our oneness and interconnectivity. I am hopeful we will accept the task we have to protect our earth and to create a world filled with more justice, compassion and peace. We are one!
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series this week for the United Nations’ International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief (Aug. 22). The other article in the series is:
Is Our Concern Over Religious Persecution Too Narrow? | Rob Sellers