Sh’ma – Listen by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Elohanu Adonai Echad.

Even an assimilated, lip-synching Jew like my father knew those first six words of Judaism’s central prayer—a prayer tucked into Jewish liturgy morning, noon, and night. Words that are emblazoned on the Jewish psyche.

The prayer of prayers, that’s the Sh’ma. It’s the prayer that turns the tables on the petitioner by asking her to stop and to listen—to stop and to hear. It’s the prayer I said as a child every night before I went to sleep. It’s the prayer that was always punctuated with my mother’s breathless “amen.” My father, on the other hand, stood at his usual spot by my door doing exactly as the prayer asked. He listened. He heard.

Saying the Sh’ma during the day becomes a cry, a plea from God to listen, but I’ve said the Sh’ma so many times in my life when I meant: Listen. To me. God. There is no one else to turn to. And I, in turn, at different stages in my life, have strained to hear God’s still, small voice. But in the end, I know that I have God’s ear, even as God remains silent. Silence is God’s voice, just as water is God’s color.

When I recited the Sh’ma each night, the six short words cleared space and reined in time. The Sh’ma created a spotlight of comforting silence. It was the spotlight of the hall light that my parents left on, illuminating a path to the bathroom or their room.

Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Elohanu Adonai Echad.

I implored God, with all of my heart and soul, for someone to stop and hear me.

I also bargained with God for joy and gladness. What if I promised to stop flushing my vitamins down the toilet or to cease hitting my sister in the middle of the night because she was asleep and I wasn’t? Would God give me the sweet silence of a family listening to the television or riding contentedly in the car? Would God finally send quiet and its silent partner, peace, to my unhappy family?

The Sh’ma has always been a prayer of the night for me—a time when strictly defined identities blurred into dreams or nightmares. Yet, at night, identities can also be blurred into something softer, sweeter. At night, my strict, seat belt-wearing, MacArthur-sunglassed father would often stand vigil at the foot of my bed, looking out the window, presumably to keep track of the weather. But, really, he was there to listen, to monitor my asthma. My father came to my room like an explorer—flashlight in one hand, a pitcher of water in the other. He’d fill up the vaporizer to steam me back to health.

When my ragged breathing eventually calmed down, my father hummed his preferred liturgy—Viennese waltzes and Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. Listen. Hear. Understand my soul, he telegraphed with his music. For me to breathe normally was to hear his favorite tunes, to be lulled by them. Listening to him was a crystalline, multi-faceted moment when I was in synch with him. My silent recitation of the Sh’ma spun around us like the delicate yet strong silk of a spider’s web.

I thought I had outgrown the Sh’ma as a teenager. I fell asleep to Top 40 crackling from an AM transistor radio I hid under my pillow. I swapped prayer for Sylvia Plath and Emily Dickinson. At night, I was the ghost of Cathy from Wuthering Heights, pretending to scratch at my bedroom window, asking for God to listen to me. I stopped listening for God.

Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Elohanu Adonai Echad.

When I finally had my own children, I took out the Sh’ma like a favorite childhood blanket. I’d calm my squirming, crying children with the shhh of Sh’ma. That shushing also soothed me into believing that God was listening again, that God was hearing my prayers again. The Sh’ma was a call around which every other prayer and wish rallied. A prayer beyond words. The Sh’ma announced God’s presence to me.

Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Elohanu Adonai Echad.

The Sh’ma was the first movement of a Symphony of Silence. It was movement towards God’s embrace. I have heard snippets of that symphony throughout my life. I heard it when I fell in love with my future husband. I heard it when the heads of my children crowned inside of me. I heard it in jarring moments during my father’s long, slow death. Every one of his incremental declines was like the short steep falls from which I would awake just before I hit the ground.

I yearn again and again for a primal connection to God. The older I am, the more I realize that establishing a connection to the divine is surprisingly prosaic. Prayer takes practice, and practice is repetition to which we always say “amen.” In Hebrew, the word for practice shares the same root as the word for amen—both of them reach back to the Hebrew word for faithemunah. I like this mingling of the work-a-day and the divine. It feels very real to me.

Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Elohanu Adonai Echad.

When my father died, and I said the Kaddish, the mourner’s prayer, every evening for a year, I said the Sh’ma along with it. Once again, I was a child; the Sh’ma was a touchstone in a dark, bewildering night, and God was listening.

This essay was originally published by the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute

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