July 29, 2023 | 11 Av 5783
Torah: Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11 Triennial:
Haftarah: Isaiah 40:1-26
Shabbat Shalom from Bruce Washburn
Dad, We Heard
There is a way of understanding the Shema, recorded in both in the Talmud (Bavli Pesachim 56a) and in midrash (Sifrei Devarim 31) as the words of Jacob’s sons, assuring him that all is well and they will follow in his footsteps. We read them speaking the words, “Hear, oh Israel,” as a direct address to their father.
This is a reading that only midrash could come up with. After all, the words of the Shema are recorded in this week’s parashah, spoken by Moses to the Israelite people hundreds of years after the death of Jacob and his sons in the story. To read them spoken by Jacob’s sons invites us to fall down the rabbit hole of midrashic imagination.
Jacob and Moses bear striking similarities. Both spend time as shepherds, both meet their wives by a well, both have a real relationship with God. Jacob leads our people into Egypt and Moses leads them out. Most pertinently, both Jacob and Moses know the bone-shaking anxiety and hope of having to pass on tradition and promise to the next generation. Both Jacob and Moses were bearers of God’s covenantal promises. Neither of them will live to see the promises fulfilled. Rather, they have to pass on the obligation and reward to the next generation. They become teachers to those who come after them, Jacob to his twelve sons and Moses to the twelve tribes who bear their names. Jacob will leave something like blessings for his twelve sons just as Moses will do for the twelve tribes.
The midrash picks up on these connections, allowing us to imagine a link between the two men. The entry point is Genesis 35:22, the report that Jacob’s eldest son has slept with Bilhah, one of Jacob’s concubines. We read, in that verse, “and Israel heard.” Outside of Deuteronomy, this is the only time in the Torah that we get the particular phrase, “Israel heard,” which, of course, is like the language of the Shema, “Hear, oh Israel.” As we read in the midrash, having heard the devastating news of what his son has done, Jacob is worried, not for himself, but for Reuben. He is worried that just as Abraham and Isaac each produced a child who was unworthy of carrying on the covenantal promise, Ishamel and Esau respectively, so too had Reuben proved himself to be unworthy. But the verse continues, saying, seemingly superfluously, “And the sons of Jacob were twelve,” confirming that somehow Reuben would redeem himself to be counted as a worthy child of Jacob.
The midrash understands that from this moment on, Reuben repented. He fasted and did not partake of the meals shared by his brothers when they threw Joseph in a pit. He abstained from all pleasure. It is not until the very end of the Torah that Moses will confirm that God does in fact forgive Reuben. We read in Deuteronomy 33:6, “let Reuben live and not die.” He is fully accepted back into the children of Jacob. Jacob need not have worried that his progeny will prove unworthy.
The midrash continues, using the moment in Genesis 49 when Jacob calls his sons to his deathbed to listen to his final blessings with the words “Hear, oh sons of Jacob.” It is not until we reach Deuteronomy 6, the Shema, that the midrash imagines the sons of Jacob as replying. Their father asked them to hear his words and they respond with the word “hear,” restating the fundamental point of his blessings. As the early writer of piyyutim, Yannai, writes, “he called to them with the word ‘hear’ and they answered him with the word ‘hear.’” This moment is proof that we, his progeny, are worthy, that we will continue upholding our side of the covenant.
It is also an explanation of the strange phrase from Genesis 28:21, when Jacob appears to make his acceptance of God conditional on God providing him safe passage home. In place of this problematic understanding, the midrash would have us read the condition that “God will be my God” as the hope that his children would also say that God would be their God.
Hearing us make this vow, hearing his children recite the Shema, Jacob then, in the midrash, bows at the head of his bed in Genesis 47:31. He releases himself from his existential worry. He has passed on the promise and can leave the earth in peace.
Likewise, Moses faces the same existential worry. He leaves the Israelites as the carriers of the covenant when he dies in Deuteronomy. Millenia later, we are both Jacob and his sons, both Moses and the Israelites. Saying the Shema, we address those who came before us, “hear, oh Jacob and Moses, we, your descendants, are still here, still faithful” and also we address those who come after us “hear, oh future generations, we have an obligation and a promise to pass to you.”