Shema – Hearing the Call in the Wild
By Rabbi Danielle Upbin
There are many ways to pray and many ways to affirm the unity of God. While prayer is portable and can be done from just about anywhere, there is something magical about the backdrop of the mountain and the chorus of nature to uplift our spirit. With our ears more attuned in the natural world, our hearts can open to the words that have kept our people together for 3000 years: “Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad/ Listen (hear this, pay attention), God is our God, God is One”.
To fulfill the words of Shema in the outdoors, we sometimes need to become very quiet. Our silence is an invitation to hear the voice of God more clearly, to feel the unity of Spirit, and to rest in the Oneness of it all.
This invitation to stop and listen occurs twice daily in Jewish prayer. The Shema is liturgically proscribed during the morning and evening services, as the biblical verse states: “when you rise up and when you go to sleep” /“u’v’shoch’becha u’v’kumecha” (Deuteronomy 6:7). The prayer has been described as the foundation of Jewish life because it conveys the primary belief that God is One. This was a new belief for our ancestors who dwelled among their ancient Near Eastern neighbors who believed in multiple gods or Animism.
In perusing Rabbi Isaiah Wolgemuth’s book, Guide to Jewish Prayer, I came across a passage that lends itself to the power of Shema, particularly, how the words are experienced in nature.
The author cites the Torah commentator, Avudrahom, who suggests that the word “Shema” itself contains a reference to several fundamental concepts in Judaism:
Shema (shin, mem, ayin) is an acrostic Se’u Marom Eynechem (lift up your eyes), which we should do Shacharit, Mincha and Aravit (morning, afternoon and evening). The message is that Shadai Melech Elyon (God is the Supreme King). If you do this, you will accept Ol Malchut Shamayim (acceptance of God’s sovereignty forever.) (P. 94)
I have been spending some time in nature over this summer at Camp Ramah in the North Georgia mountains. Joyful activities, as loud as they can sometimes be, are part of the spirit of Jewish summer camp. There are times, however, in Jewish life, when the human chorus gets quiet. At camp, the quiet is like a “rest note” in a grand symphony, creating a sacred silence that cedes to the crescendo of nature. Jewishly speaking, that “rest note” is sustained through the words of prayer, particularly in the Shema – the prayer that calls us to listen. Shema in the sacred mountain community, turns our full attention, not only to the glory of our surroundings, but also to the One who called it in to being.
This past week, I encountered two profound “Shema Moments” connected to this teaching. The first one occurred during Kabbalat Shabbat, a special service to welcome the Sabbath attended by 700 camp residents. A phenomenon occurred. As we started to pray in the covered sports pavilion, a torrential rain hammered down on the tin roof above us, insistent and percussive, it drowned out our communal prayer. We tried to meet the power of nature by rising to our feet, clapping our hands, and singing on the top of our lungs. But how could we compete? Kol Adonai BaKoach – “the voice of God roars in might”. Ironically, we had just recited those words in Psalm 29 as part of our worship. On that night, these words meant something new. We realized that our collective voice had the power of one of those raindrops.
The rain continued for over an hour and eventually the whole camp lost electricity. In that moment, God’s voice was heard loud and clear, even awe-inspiring. In a way, it was silencing. With our eyes raised to the heavens, we knew that we couldn’t drown out the rain, but we could use the experience to create sacred memories while trying. By the time we reached the words of the Shema in the evening prayer, the pavilion was getting darker and the rain was getting louder. By then, however, every voice was lifted in unity and pride.
Sometimes we can’t help but hear the voice of God. Other times, though, it calls to us softly and we have to quiet ourselves to listen. A few days later, I attended a morning service with a smaller group of campers who were gathered by the lake. While we waited for some participants to finish their silent prayer, a counselor prompted the group to close our eyes and listen to our surroundings. On this clear, cool clear morning, we turned our full attention to what we heard: bird calls, leaves swooshing in a breeze, the babble of the distant creek, fish flopping around in the lake, buzzing insects – on that morning, the voice of God was a whisper in the mountainside.
While the words of the Shema are only proscribed twice a day, the invitation to listen is always available to us. Wherever we find ourselves in the chorus of nature, be it in the crescendo or the rest note, the thunder or the whisper, may our hearts and ears open to let the Voice in. May the serenity and the challenge of nature continue to inspire us and renew our spirits for generations to come.