The Reubenites and the Gadites named the altar "Witness", meaning, "It is a witness between us and them that Adonai is our God."
Gabriel had his four-year check up this week. Not a big deal—it was mostly looking in the mouth, ears, and eyes. The usual doctor stuff. The one thing that was different this time was Gabriel’s first hearing and vision test. He passed both with flying colors and sounds, so no worries. The hard part was getting Gabriel to take the tests.
The first test was for hearing. He had to put the ear phones on and listen for a beep in one ear or the other. We tried to make a game out of it. “How fast can you raise your hand after a beep?” “Great job!! Two points for Gabriel!!!” (You use a lot of exclamation points when talking to a four-year-old.) When the nurse was finished, she took off the earphones and told us that his hearing is great. Never one who lets people go without a joke, I asked, “What can you tell us about his listening?” She responded, “Try being interesting,” without skipping a beat. I must have been the 1001st time she had heard that one.
This week in Parshat Va’etchanan we read the Shema, our Jewish credo. It’s the first prayer we memorize in religious school. It’s the beginning of the instructions written in our mezzuzot and our tefillin. “Hear O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai alone,” is how it is translated in “Gates of Grey.” The first word, shema, is the command form of the verb lishmoa, “to hear.” We are commanded to hear that we have one and only one God, and we refer to God as Adonai. Hear. Not listen, just hear. Like Gabriel’s hearing test, it leaves us wondering about the difference between hearing and listening. It makes us wonder why the word is not hitbonen “concentrate,” or hakshiv “pay attention.”
In the book of Joshua, chapter 22, Joshua sends the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half of Manasseh back to their land holdings across the Jordan River. Before they cross the river, the three tribes build a “great conspicuous altar.” This angers the other tribes, as they believe the altar is for worshipping other gods. The Reubenites, Gadites, and Manassites explain that they built the altar not as hillul hashem (so to speak), but for future generations, so that if the tribes in the Promised Land were ever to question the validity of the outer tribes’ stake in Klal Yisrael, the altar would serve as a witness. In fact, they name the altar “witness,” as it says in Joshua 22:34 (see above), and the inner tribes are pleased.
Just like the “great conspicuous altar” served as a witness to the future generations of the Reubenites and the Gadites, the Shema serves as a witness to our future generations. The words of the Shema are as familiar to our Jewish youth as the Pledge of Allegiance is to most American youth. We pass these words down from generation to generation, reminding ourselves and our children to keep the words of the Shema on our heart and minds, to write them on our doorposts and in our phylacteries, and to discuss them and teach them at every opportunity. When we go into any synagogue, anywhere in the world, we can be assured that the words of the Shema will be recited aloud. We feel at home when we hear the familiar words of our liturgy, even if different nusach is used. Any Jewish person who walks into any synagogue is welcomed by the familiarity of the words we say, which serve as our testament. The Shema is our way of proving, as it were, the validity of our faith in God, and our connection to the Jewish people.
There is a textual link to this idea in addition to the theological one. In Joshua 22:34, they build the altar as a witness that “Adonai is God.” In the words of the Shema, we declare that Adonai is God. We are commanded specifically to hear, but there is a hidden command in the verse. The enlarged letters ayin and dalet in the first and last words of the Shema spell the word eid, or witness—the name of the altar built by the Reubenites and Gadites. The implicit command is that we are to use this creed as a witness for future generations. We need only hear the shema, and we have witnessed the faith of generations past. So too will our grandchildren’s grandchildren witness our faith every time they hear the Shema, wherever they are. These six words hold such meaning that our faith is reaffirmed every time we read them, every time we utter them, and every time we hear them.
Just by hearing these six words, we serve as witnesses. Sometimes when we hear we are being passive, just letting sounds flow into our ear. With the words of the Shema, we cannot hear them without listening. It is culturally impossible for us to just hear these powerful words, so we are commanded to hear them, and God knows that when we hear these words, we are connected as a people of faith. Just letting the words enter our ears makes us a part of a people that has survived generations.