When any of us tell or retell a story, we give voice to OUR OWN innermost thoughts and concerns. This gives the conscientious and probative listener (or reader) an opportunity to delve deeply into the soul of the author of the story. Similarly, when we see how the sages recast a story from the Torah, we can learn a lot about what THEIR real concerns were.
And so, when Jacob sought to give his children his final charge before dying, he gathered them together, saying: “Assemble and hearken (v’shimu), O Jacob’s sons, and hearken (v’shimu) to Israel your father.” (Genesis 49:2). Anyone with Jewish background will likely notice the word (Shin Mem Ayin) which means “listen” or “hearken”, a word which immediately leads to an association with the famous Jewish pronouncement of faith, the Shma – “Hear Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.” (Deuteronomy 6:4). This led one rabbinic retelling to cast this scene in the following manner: Elazar ben Ahoi said: “From here [we learn] that Israel merited the [mitzvah] of reciting the Shma, for when Jacob our forefather was about to depart the world, he called to his twelve sons and said to them, ‘The God of Israel, who is in heaven is your Father, lest there be among you anyone who disputes the Holy One Blessed be He?’ They said to him (Jacob, also known as Israel): ‘Hearken Israel, our father, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.’ Upon hearing this, Jacob whispered: ‘Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom for ever and ever (Barukh Shem Kavod Malkhuto l’olam vaed).’” (Bereishit Rabbah 98:3, Theodore-Albeck ed. p. 1252)
Two things come to mind upon reading this story, one historical and the other existential. The first is that story has anachronistic elements. The Shma could not have been recited by Jacob or his sons since it is only first mentioned in the book of Deuteronomy; nor could the refrain – “Baruch Shem Kavod…”, which is recited in prayer immediately after the sentence Shma Yisrael, since it is a post-biblical addition. This story, in attributing these liturgical elements to Jacob and sons, is obviously trying to establish their foundation in the storyline of the earliest founders of the Jewish tradition to reenforce their authenticity. Things are always more meaningful when they have a story (especially an “early story) attached!
This brings us to the second point. Jacob is portrayed in this story as the paradigmatic seriously Jewish parent who is concerned that his/her progeny perpetuate the family’s most important legacy – its beliefs, identity, and way of life. Jacob, on his deathbed wants to hear an affirmation from his children. This plays itself out turning the recitation of the Shma into an antiphonal (responsive) experience, where the children respond: Hear us dad! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one! Jacob responds: Phew! Thank God (Baruch HaShem!) or more formally, this establishes the origins of the extra-biblical reply: “Blessed be the name…”
What makes this story particularly poignant is that Jacob’s concern is not about outward trappings, minimal group identity. It is about deep identity built upon reflection. Jacob is invested and so he expects his children to be, too! And while, success at this project is never a sure thing (otherwise Jacob would not have been concerned), Jacob’s sons knew their father’s commitments because he transmitted them both in how he lived and how he interacted with them.
This is how one rabbi, from long ago, saw Jacob’s deathbed scene. One may never look at “Shma Yisrael” the same way again.