Here is a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, the 19th century Austrian-Czech writer whose Book Of Hours is a classic of contemporary spiritual poetry.
You, God, Who live next door–
If at times through the long night, I trouble You
With my urgent knocking–
this is why: I hear You breathe so seldom.
I knoe You’re all alone in that room.
If You should be thirsty, there’s no one
To get You a glass of water.
I wait listening, always. Just give me a sign!
I’m right here.
As it happens, the wall between us
is very thin. Why wouldn’t a cry
from one of us
break it down? It would crumble
it would barely make a sound. (trans. by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy)
Imagine yourself awakening in the lonely night, listening so intently for your parent, your child, your good friend, your lover sleeping right next door to you, just beyond the paper-thin walls separating the two of you. You can barely hear him or her breathing, you have no way of knowing how he or she is or even if your loved one is alive! You are so paper-thin-walls close to each other, but even that distance is achingly far. So too, is Rilke’s relationship with God. Rilke thinks about God being so terribly vulnerable, and he wants so badly to knock down those walls separating them because God needs him. Sometimes, God’s need for him – for any person – is deeply reflected in even the most mundane tasks of helping other people, symbolized by getting someone a glass of water in the middle of the night. Rilke listens for any sound God would make in the world, as it were, the sound of a living God, as it were, calling for help.
In case we assume that this way of talking to and about God is scandalously un-Jewish, we might think again. Though images of God as the all-powerful and all-knowing Ruler abound in Jewish tradition, the idea of God as being in need or in search of Man, as Abraham Heschel put it, finds expression particularly in rabbinic and later mystical literature. Think of God as the divine Parent who suffers when His children suffer, of Shekhinah, the up-close-and-personal face of God who goes into exile when the children of Israel are exiled, and of the God of the Kabbalah Who cannot heal Herself or the world without human intervention. All of these striking images are a part of Jewish tradition. All of them point to an indispensable role for human beings in God’s life and the world’s life as God’s partners.
Though mine is admittedly a highly creative interpretation, I want to suggest that our reading of the majestic first line of the Shma is pointing us toward the same kind of relationship with our vulnerable God to which Rilke alludes. In context, the Shma is Moses’ stunning charge to the Israelites to affirm God’s oneness and to love God with absolute finality and exclusivity.
Shma Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Ekhad.
Listen O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.
Little wonder that this line is recited twice a day by Jews, why it is the subject of so much roiling theological debate, why it is one of the first prayers that a Jew learns in infancy, and why it is the last thing we say before our deaths. Essentially, its assertion that God is our God and the God of the universe, – the absolute Oneness underlying all of existence – is what Judaism is all about.
However, there are a number of things that are so strange about this first line of the Shma. Why does Moses tell us to listen to a statement of faith? Normally, when the Bible asks us to listen or to hear, it is asking us to pay attention to instructions or commands. Why does God’s name Adonai, spelled YHVH, get repeated? Grammatically, it would have been more logical to say simply, Adonai Eloheinu Ekhad: the Lord our God is One. Why this superfluous phrase, the Lord (is) our God? What is the deeper meaning of Yisrael, the name Israel, and does Ekhad only mean that God is One?
Using Rilke’s imagery and that of ancient Jewish tradition, I suggest that Moses’ charge can be read quite differently. Up to this point in their history, God has staked so much on the viability of the covenant with the Jewish people, a covenant upon which God relies to bring testimony of God’s presence and power into the world. We, the people of Israel need God as we are about to enter the promised land, but God needs us just as much. A well-known Talmudic comment (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Brakhot 6b) elucidates this mutuality in a rather shocking way. After playfully “proving” that, like us, God also wears Tefillin, the black prayer boxes containing the Shma that Jews wear on weekdays in prayer, the Talmud then teaches that a passage praising the Jewish people’s uniqueness to God is written in God’s Tefillin as well! Our Tefillin remind us that God is the only One for us: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” God’s Tefillin remind God that we are the only ones for Him: “Who is like Your people, Israel, a singular (Ekhad) nation on earth!” The Talmud then imagines God telling us Jews: “Look, you singled Me out for love and attention among everything in the world; what is written in your Tefillin is evidence of this. So too, I single you out for love and attention among everything in the world with what is written in My Tefillin.” Implicit in this highly imaginative story is mutual love and need between us and God, a two-way street of interdependence.
With this Talmudic story and Rilke in mind, how could we read this first line of the Shma differently? Let me offer my own translation:
Yisrael, you who are always struggling with God and men:
Listen closely for Adonai our God Who is right next door to us in love and intimacy.
That same Adonai is alone and lonely.
Let me quickly break down each part of my admittedly creative translation.
Shma, the command form of the Hebrew verb shamah, to hear, is often employed to mean heeding instruction or orders. I understand it in its most literal sense: to listen intently to or for something, as when Rilke tells God, “I wait listening, always.”
Yisrael, the biblical name for the Jewish people, is taken from our patriarch, Jacob’s new name that was given to him by God’s messenger after their tumultuous struggle prior to Jacob being reunited with his estranged brother, Esau. Like our ancestor, we are a people constantly struggling with the divine and the human, and like him we prevail.
Adonai is Eloheinu. We are asked from time to time to desist from our Yisrael struggles long enough to listen closely, carefully, compassionately for God with Whom we have such intimacy, yet Who feels at times so detached and isolated from us.
Adonai is Ekhad: not One in some abstract philosophical sense of pure unity of being, but One in the sense of being alone, lonely, and isolated.
In other words, with this first line of the Shma, Moses might truly be calling us to reach out to God, Who is often very “lonely” in the struggle to be a presence in the world, Who feels close enough to be our next door neighbor, yet from Whom we feel at times alienated. So much evil and despair in the world push us and God apart, as if our distance were the difference between heaven and earth. This is terrible for God and even worse for us. The Shma inspires us, commands us, to knock on God’s door with the greatest urgency and to let God know that God may be One in a way that is beyond us, but with us as God’s partners, God is never alone.