Genesis The Shma, Activism, and Maccabiah

By Rabbi Lev Meirowitz Nelson

Parshat Vayechi, 47:28-50:26

What’s spiritual about going to a protest?

I participated in one last month, on a midtown Manhattan street in the early dark of a November evening, wearing my “protest tallit” (the white one I received from Hebrew College at my rabbinic ordination). My companions were farmworkers from Florida’s Coalition of Immokalee Workers  and their multifaith allies, calling on the leadership of the Wendy’s fast-food chain to become the 15th corporation to join their Fair Food Program.

As we marched and chanted, I was drawn back in time to formative memories of my young adulthood, during Maccabiah at Eisner Camp, a Jewish sleepaway summer camp in the Berkshires. Known at some camps as “Color War,” during Maccabiah everyone is split up into four teams for a competition that takes over all of camp. Those days of cheering madly, of sport and song and artistic contests, energized me as a young counselor and helped me become a better version of myself.

This walk down memory lane was partly spurred by the liturgy shared between the two contexts: “There ain’t no power like the power of the people, ’cause the power of the people don’t stop!” is but a word away from “There ain’t no power like the power of the blue team…” Such unison chanting, sometimes including call-and-response, is as old as religion itself. This week’s parashah, Vayechi, gives us new insight into the spiritual function of a protest, anchored in the most famous Jewish call-and-response of all: the Shma.

When we read the Shma in its original context (Deuteronomy 6), it doesn’t leap out with any particular significance—any more than the other four times in Deuteronomy that Moses exhorts Israel to listen up. The ancient rabbis, perhaps seeking an inspiring origin story for this central prayer, retroject the Shma to Jacob’s deathbed scene.

We read in the biblical account of that scene, in Parshat Vayechi: “Jacob called his sons and said, ‘Gather and I will tell you what will happen to you at the end of days. Assemble and hear, sons of Jacob, and hear Israel your father’” (Gen. 49:1-2). In a rabbinic midrash (Talmud Pesachim 56a), as Jacob is about to reveal the secrets of the messianic age to his gathered sons, his prophetic power disappears. He wonders if this is due to some blemish in their faith, but they reassure him in one voice, in the words of the Shma: Listen, Israel (Jacob’s other name), the Eternal is our God—as God is yours–the Eternal is one. Comforted, Jacob whispers back: Baruch shem kevod malchuto l’olam va’ed, blessed be the name of God’s glorious sovereignty forever and ever.

This scene captures three elements shared by the Shma, an activist’s chant, and Maccabiah. First, they express a vision of a core ideal–whether that is monotheism, justice for farmworkers, or how awesome the gold team is. (To Eisner’s credit, each team has an educational theme, so the awesomeness of the gold team is tied up with how well it expresses, say, the divine attribute of justice.) Second, they seek to transform the spiritual energy of an ideal into action—mitzvot, joining a worker-driven social responsibility program, or showing your love for the camp and its community. And finally, they bring people together to feel a part of something larger.

This last element may sound surprising when applied to Jacob’s sons, knowing what we do about the divisions and bad blood among them. How honestly did they put all that aside, given that as soon as Jacob is buried, the eleven brothers lie to Joseph to make sure he doesn’t take revenge on them (50:15-18)? Another version of the midrash addresses this concern by adding this interpretation of Genesis 49:2:

“Assemble and hear, sons of Jacob!” Rabbi Berechiah said…this indicates the sons were scattered, and an angel came down and gathered them. Rabbi Tanchuma said: they were scattered and he gathered them with the divine spirit. (Genesis Rabbah [Theodor-Albeck edition], 99:2)

Here we see the division we have come to expect: Jacob’s sons were each off doing their own thing, to the point that they didn’t respond quickly to the summons of their dying father. They needed an extra nudge from God to show up. But show up they did, and the power of the group chant made their words true in that moment: they really did believe wholeheartedly in one God.

There is another mystery in these opening lines. Why does Jacob say “gather/he’asfu” in verse 1 and then “assemble/hikabtzu” in verse 2? Did they not hear the first time? The 16th-century commentator Kli Yakar suggests:

The word “gather” refers to one who is standing outside in public and is then brought into the house to a private place, as in “you shall gather it [your neighbor’s wandering ox] into your house” (Deut. 22:2) and many other references. The language of “assemble” points to people who are scattered and then brought together, even in a public place.

At first Jacob wanted to reveal to them a secret—the messianic future—so he invited them to “gather” privately. When he realized God would not allow this, he changed tack and called them to “assemble”, in a more public way, so he could give his blessing.

This same dynamic between public face and private arrangements was operating on that Manhattan street corner, where our real goal was to convince Wendy’s leadership to negotiate privately with the CIW. It is also at play in Maccabiah, where the fierce public competition is supplemented by relationship-building and collaboration that goes on behind the scenes.

This tension plays out in the Shma as well. Traditionally, we say the first line loud and proud, the second in an undertone. Many explanations have been offered, but I’d like to add this one: the public business we conduct when we say the Shma is balanced by a private interaction with God when we say Baruch shem kevod. And that may be where much of the “real work” gets done.

In our materialistic world, the Shma is its own form of protest; protest is a kind of Maccabiah with much greater stakes; and Maccabiah slyly offers campers an opportunity for transcendence.


Rabbi Lev Meirowitz Nelson is Director of Education at T’ruah; The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. 

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