Well, hello friends! I think you’ll find today’s guest post to be both an invitation and a breath of fresh air – I know I did! Jane Dawson is a writer, an educator and a spiritual director in Ottawa, Canada; I love her perspective on faith, which includes a strong emphasis on and understanding of Judaism. Enjoy.
This year, as a spiritual practice, I decided to learn to say a modified version of the first two verses of the Shema prayer (Deuteronomy 6:4-5) in Hebrew.
“Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength.”
Shema Yisrael Adonoi Eloheinu, Adonei Echad. Ve ahavta et Adonai Elohecha, bechol levavcha, uvechol nafshecha, uvechol meodecha.
Learning the words took hours of repetition before they sunk in. Although I had briefly studied Biblical Hebrew at theological school a few years earlier, there wasn’t much that had stuck. I found a clip on YouTube that I listened to over and over, trying to identify discrete segments of sound I could retain and repeat. I loved the shhhhh of sibilants and chhhhh of gutterals floating on a wave of lilting vowels. But trying to say them myself was an effort at grasping smoke. It was a bit like learning to play soccer when I was in my thirties, with two left feet and no natural instincts for the game.
Progress only came by slow degrees.
This struggle – persisting at something that didn’t come easily – became a central part of the spiritual practice, as much as the words themselves. The usual temptation is to stick to things we are good at. Floundering, with no linguistic gift to rely on, was a daily lesson in humility.
I never did get the knack for soccer and gave up after one season. With only two verses of the Shema to get under my belt (and no need to run around in the rain) the challenge was easier and the motivation stronger. I never had any ambition to become a soccer player, it was just one of many efforts in keeping fit. But the words of the Shema had a deeper allure. They offered a kind of grounding, in one of the most ancient and spiritually resonant prayers from the Hebrew Bible. I had no desire to become Jewish or appropriate anything from the Jewish tradition. The impulse, in wanting to learn these words in Hebrew, was to connect in some small way with the sacred grammar of this ancient prayer. Like chanting the OM at the end of a yoga class, there was something about this practice of “giving voice” that somehow gave my own spiritual voice a deeper register.
What turned out to be most profound, through this process of learning, was taking in the deeper layers of meaning in the words, as I went along. In Hebrew, I discovered, the word “shema” blends the meaning of “listen” and “hear” in a single verb. It also means more than the physical process of taking in sound. To listen is to give your full attention to, listening not just with your ears but with your whole being. As addressed to God, the word “shema” also implies more than passive listening but also active responding. Don’t just hear my words, but do something about them. Similarly, in other parts of the Hebrew Bible when God calls upon the people to listen, the command is for them not simply to hear what God is saying but to keep the promises they made in the covenant.
In Hebrew, then, listening and doing are inseparable. Real listening, in this sense, takes both effort and action.
As I have become more practiced in reciting the first two verses of the Shema, this realization has also become a part of my ongoing spiritual learning. I can say the words in Hebrew now, without my YouTube prompter. I do my best to say them inwardly, if not daily at least whenever I remember. Not that I have become proficient, though, in living out their deeper teaching of effort linked with action. And yet, every opportunity for deeper listening invites equal opportunity to keep on trying.
“Shema” isn’t just a word, it’s a challenge. One we could perhaps all pay more attention to – with all our heart, soul, and strength.
Jane Dawson is a writer, educator and spiritual director in Ottawa, Canada. She works for the Eastern Ontario Outaouais Regional Council of the United Church of Canada. She has a passion for languages even though she isn’t good at learning them.