On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah: It Only Takes One - Parashat Va-et'chanan

What was the most inspirational advice or speech or quote you ever heard? Who is the person that changed your life for the better? This week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs discusses Parashat Va-et'chanan, sharing words from Rabbi Harold Schulweis, where we learn that it only takes one - one moment, one person, one God - to inspire us, and to move us.

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[URJ Intro] Welcome back to On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah. A podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, shares a new spin on the weekly Torah portion in just about 10 minutes. This week, Rabbi Jacobs teaches us about Parashah Va-et'chanan, and he asks us to think about what really matters, and what can really bring us together.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] This week we focus our attention on Parashah Va-et'chanan, the second Torah portion of the book of Deuteronomy. So I start with a story. Before I was a rabbi, I was thinking about going to rabbinical school, but I wasn't really sure. It's kind of a big step. So a friend of mine said, well, Rick, why don't you come to HUC-JR, Reform Rabbinical Seminary in Los Angeles, and just check it? Come with me to class. So I did that. I went and spent the day. And there was one class in particular that I simply will never forget. It was a Talmud class taught by Rabbi Harold Schulweis, who was an adjunct professor then. And I got to say, these were 90 minutes that were unbelievably stirring. His teachings were relevant, urgent, compelling. And I walked out of Rabbi Schulweis's class feeling like, all right, sign me up. I'm all in.

And then I was in my first year of rabbinical school at HUC in Israel. That's where you spend your first year when you're studying to be a reform rabbi. And it was the mid-year break, and my mom and dad and my sister came to visit me. And we were traveling through the north, and we were walking through the mystical city of Tzfat. And there I saw Rabbi Schulweis. He had a big congregational group, and I waited to see if I could just sneak in and get a word in. And he saw me. He clearly couldn't have recognized me. I only sat in his class for 90 minutes. But I went up to him and I said, thank you. He said, what for? I said, I'm thanking you because I sat in your Talmud class in Los Angeles last year, and it was so gripping that here I am spending my first year of HUC in Israel. And he got a big smile on his face. And I bet you a lot of people told Rabbi Schulweis exactly what I had told him. But I wanted him to know.

And I want to share actually a sermon that Rabbi Schulweis gave. I think one of the great sermons I've ever read, was privileged to be in the congregation on Rosh HaShanah in 1997 when he gave this sermon. And I also just want to frame that the book of Deuteronomy is, in many ways, a collection of Moses' greatest sermons. I'm not suggesting that we could sneak in Rabbi Schulweis's sermon right into the middle of Deuteronomy in the next printing of the Hebrew Bible. But I am saying that sometimes the words that great teachers like Moses and Rabbi Schulweis and others speak, they have an enduring quality. Rabbi Schulweis died in 2014, but his legacy is so powerful in books and articles and in so many sermons that he gave at Valley Beth Shalom in Los Angeles. And Rabbi Eddy Feinstein has succeeded him and is also, like his teacher, one of the great rabbis of our day.

So it turns out there are a lot of verses in the Hebrew Bible. If you do all the counting-- and I'm not suggesting that you should stop your car or stop your walk and count the 5,845 verses in the five books of Moses-- but just to know that they're all there. I wanted to talk about not one verse. You know you've heard me talk about one verse before in the podcast. I actually want to talk about one word, only one word in this Torah portion. Now, if I give you the context, you'll probably be able to guess the word. The context is chapter 6 verse 4. Which, if I can say it just in Hebrew is, Sh'ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad Hear, O Israel, the eternal is our God, the eternal is one.

So the word that I want to focus on is the word that Rabbi Schulweis gave the entire sermon on in 1997. It's echad. It means one. And the Sh'ma is written by hand on that parchment. If you have a mezuzah on the doorposts of your house, the Sh'ma is there. And it's written by a scribe by hand. It's also written on the little batim, the little boxes of the tefillin that many of us wear. And it's that one verse that we're taught that we're to say morning and night every single day. And some prayers we just have to say, but we don't have to have full kavanah or intention. But when we say the Sh'ma, we got to actually really mean it. And it is traditional when you say Sh'ma to elongate that word echad. Really savoring and holding on. What does that mean that God is one? Well, you could argue, and Rabbi Schulweis does it pretty compellingly, that being one-- echad-- is the spiritual foundation of kind of everything that we are and everything that our tradition means. It's all in that word one. Here's, again, the theology. It's not just about, what do I believe, but Rabbi Schulweis makes this case that when I actually really believe and understand and internalize that God is one, it changes the way I live, it changes the way I look at the world, the way I look at all people, and what I do every day. So actually, theology is relevant and practical and real.

So here's a couple of quotes from the actual sermon. He says, "Echad, one, but not one in the mathematical sense. One as opposed to two or as opposed to three or opposed to 20. To believe in echad is to understand God as the great connection, the nexus, the binding that links me and you within this great chain of being." He goes on to say, "To recognize God as echad is to believe that everything and everyone is connected, and that we all belong to each other. And in the deepest spiritual sense, we are, all of us, cosmically connected. To believe in echad is to know that nothing is isolated." Whoa, that's pretty good, I got to say. And it is, I believe, what those words mean. But very often we just say them. Just Sh'ma Yisrael, What does it mean to really say that God and the world that God created is all about oneness, it's all about the interconnection? Well, there is this pretty well-known teaching. Rabbi Schulweis says it, but I also know that Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik also taught it, and many other sages. Almost all of the columns in the Torah begin with vav. Vav means and. And is a conjunction. It connects. It's a way of being. It's not a separation, it's that one thing is connected to the next thing. One person is connected to the next one. And on and on. It's a beautiful teaching.

Echad is also a way of seeing. And there's this great teaching by Rabbi Nachman of Breslov who was a great Chasidic master in the 19th century. And he believed that every leaf, every blade of grass, every tree prays to God. He would say, look at that leaf. You may see it as an isolated, discrete, distinct, separate thing. But look at the leaf deeper. The leaf, the blade with the veins and the stems is attached to the twigs and the branches. And the branches are part of the bough and the trunk. And down below are roots that absorb water and minerals from the soil. Up above the chlorophyll in the leaf that stores the light of the sun. It's all connected. It's all interwoven.

There's this beautiful passage in Rabbi Schulweis's sermon says, "Echad warns against idolatry. That you might think of others as separate. When you think of others as separate and as other, that's when we get into trouble, that's when we treat people badly. As not all part of the oneness that is God. When you actually internalize echad, that all is one, you can't look on God's creatures as outcasts or pariahs who stand outside the boundaries of God's goodness or love, or our goodness or love. If you believe that God is one, then you believe that humanity is one. No matter where we pray, no matter what we look like, God, one human family." That's pretty powerful. Rabbi Schulweis was also pretty big on reminding us that as Jews, we sometimes get pretty intramural. Like we love our team, that I'm on the Reform team and you're on the Conservative team. And oh, that one, they're on the Orthodox team. And this one's on the Reconstructionist team, which is where Rabbi Schulweis oriented himself most of all. When we do that, we undermine one. We're not just one people, we're one humanity. So just see all these artificial demarcations breaking down, all these either/ors. Either you love your Jewish people, your fellow Jews, or you love humanity. That's a false either/or. Either you have fidelity to God, or to human beings. Another false dichotomy. Either your loyalty is to a ritual or ethics. False. Either obedience or to apostasy. So it's all in this one word.

Now I know many people, we're not sure about what we believe. We're not sure God talks and walks in the Bible. Is God really like a giant cosmic person? Well, that's not actually the sermon that Rabbi Schulweis gave, and it's not the one I heard, and it's not the one I want you to hear today. God in this one verse in the Torah, with this one critical word that ends echad, is to remind us about what really matters. And when everybody is starting to chop up the world to make us divided and divisive, and looking on others with such denigration, we can say that's against my faith. That's against the faith that I remind myself twice a day. And that this particular week, I read it in the actual Bible. It's not just in the prayer book, it's in the five books of Moses. It's in the last of the five books, the book of Deuteronomy. And it is traditionally said at the end of Yom Kippur. But it's also said at the very end of a person's life. I don't know what Rabbi Schulweis said on the day he died in 2014, but I got to imagine that our great teacher died as so many sages before him had, with the words of Sh'ma Yisrael, Adnai Eloheniu, Adonai Echad And with that last breath, affirmed that the oneness he taught, the oneness he lived, the oneness we now learn, the oneness we now live can change our world entirely.

[URJ Outro] Thanks for joining us on this week's episode of On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah. Want more? You can download a new episode each Monday on Apple podcasts or Google Play or Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you like what you hear, write us a review, or share the podcast with a friend. For daily ongoing conversations about Jewish holidays, pop culture, rituals, current events and more, visit ReformJudaism.org. And follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest. You can also follow Rabbi Jacobs on Twitter at @URJPresident. On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life. And until next week, L'hieroat!