As Jacob lay on his deathbed, God came to him and showed him a preview of his end. Knowing that his family worried over him, Jacob called them to his side to share with them his revelation. He said to them: “Please, my children, like my parents before me, honor the Holy Blessed One. For Abraham and Isaac did walk in God’s path as I too have tried.”
Jacob’s gathered children–twelve sons and one daughter–comforted him. “We know what you fear, father,” they said. “But, hear O Israel. Adonai is our God. Adonai is one.” (Shema Yisrael. Adonai Eloheinu. Adonai Echad.)
Humbled by the strength of their faith, Jacob bowed his head and whispered, “Blessed be the name of God’s honored sovereignty for ever and ever” (Baruch shem kavod malchuto l’olam va-ed.)
(Genesis Rabbah 96:1)
Many of us know the origin story of our central statement of faith, the Shema. We are excited by its recitation in the Torah reading cycle in the beginning of Deuteronomy and Moses’ declaration to the community of Israel as he begins his retelling of the events that lead them to the border of the Promised Land. For generations and centuries, our people have found meaning, connection, and spiritual sustenance from this simple six-word statement and have been interested in “finding” it in other parts of our tradition.
Ritually, the Shema tends to serve as a great climax in worship. The music swells, the community stands, the words are said with pride and passion. Even this past week on the bima with our newest Bat Mitzvah, Paul Dykstra helped us introduce the Torah service and bring the Torah into our community with the tried-and-true organ tune for the Shema. A great moment as Torah was passed from generation to generation with the foundational motto of our people as its soundtrack. Indeed, the Shema is a grand statement of faith and peoplehood. But, of course, it doesn’t always have to be.
This midrashic story rather sees the Shema as an intimate exchange between parent and child. In this case, the Shema becomes a statement of comfort and acknowledgment, invoking God’s special name for Jacob, Israel, as a reminder not only of his spiritual path, but the one that future generations continue to travel. In relief and gratitude, Jacob responds with the line not found in our Torah, Baruch shem k’vod…, linking “the name of God’s honored sovereignty” with that name that our people have adopted from Jacob, “Israel”. As God blessed Jacob through the name Israel, Jacob blesses us through the same name.
What I find beautiful about this version of the Shema is the quiet anxiety that comes with faith. So often, we want our beliefs and conviction to found be Hollywood-style life-changing scenes. Statements of faith should be when everything starts to make sense, where the “right” path becomes obvious and personal demons are defeated. But those of us that live lives of faith and lives of questioning know that life is rarely fit for movies. And faith is no different. We know that faith rarely comes in the perfect light of heaven parting the clouds. Instead, faith and questions of faith are often accompanied by feelings of inadequacy, doubt, and confusion. At least that’s my experience.
This week, as we read of Jacob’s final blessings and final breaths, we are given the opportunity the read between the lines of his story. For all the economic success that he had, Jacob was not the perfect person – he was flawed as a son, a brother, husband, and father. He played favorites, was easily influenceable, and didn’t always anticipate the consequences of his actions. He might have had faith in God but struggled with his faith in people and feared that a childhood of strife would only lead his children to experience the same in adulthood. As the name of our parasha suggests, Vaychi (“and he lived”), Jacob’s life and story were about to come to an end, and he feared it would be the end of faith as well.
I think that we Jews often find it difficult to discuss faith because we want it to be something it’s not. Faith doesn’t need to look or act like spiritual certainty. Jacob’s faith, and often our faith as well, looks like just the opposite – uncertainty with a willingness to wrestle, nevertheless. We Jews who love questions more than answers love that struggle with uncertainty. It is perhaps our most consistent ritual throughout the generations and geography. That struggle unifies us and lets us adapt. Shouldn’t we let that intellectual strategy also apply to our spiritual strategy? Can’t we redefine a life of faith as a life of passionate spiritual struggle? Imagine the power of having our questions of faith answered with a “?” rather than a “!” Imagine the permission.
Jacob became known as Israel after his midnight wrestling with a messenger of God. We become known as Israel after our ongoing wrestling of our faith. Baruch shem k’vod…may our great name of struggle be blessed for ever and ever.