Parashat Va'et'hanan

Hear & Act

Primo Levi's poem gives us new insights into the Shema.

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But listening is not enough. The verb shema carries additional meanings--it also denotes doing, obeying, performing, acting. Perhaps Levi titled his poem Shema precisely for its multiple meanings. He wanted to jolt his reader, through graphic and painful images, into action. Emmanuel Levinas, a famous contemporary Jewish philosopher, described the traditional Shema as "an awakening: 'Hear, Israel!'"

I read the poem's upsetting closing curses as a contemporary warning: if we do not awaken, if we will not hear, if we do not use our blessings of privilege to improve the situation of those who suffer privation, we deny our own power to create change. There are serious consequences to this failure of action.

There are many ways to respond to the voices of those who suffer: to educate ourselves on issues of global justice, to volunteer, to advocate, to share our resources. The Shema, according to Jewish law, is supposed to be said aloud. It makes sense: we are crying out to one other: "Listen, Israel! Act!" This week, will you hear it?

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Rabbi Dorothy A. Richman

Rabbi Dorothy A. Richman is the Rabbi Martin Ballonoff Memorial Rabbi-in-Residence at Berkeley Hillel.