The Three Definitions of “Shemah”
February 12, 2021
This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, has one of the most influential Jewish phrases in religious education: na-aseh v’nishmah (“we will do and we will shemah”). I don’t translate this last word yet because its meaning has more than one possible translation.
Like Shalom, the word that most Jews and non-Jews alike understand to mean “hello”, “goodbye” and “peace”, so too does the word shemah have multiple meanings. And in this phrase, shemah could mean “hear”, “obey”, or “understand”.
Our sages have argued these interpretations for millennia, and depending on one’s ideology, religious observance, and even modern psychology, completing the phrase, “we will do and we will …” changes everything about the meaning of these famous words.
Making a commitment “to do” first and then “to hear” suggests a level of faith; no matter what you are about to ask of me, I am agreeing to do it without hesitation. As we can imagine, this unquestionable faith is embraced by many as a sign of unyielding dedication and commitment to Gd.
The second translation, “we will do and we will obey”, seems similar to the first, but suggests a very different relationship between Gd and humanity. “Hearing” suggests a loving relationship built on a desire to get close and fulfill a purpose, but “to obey” suggests an authoritarian relationship built on consequence and reward.
The third definition, “to understand”, opens us up to a whole new perspective on our responsibility to Gd, faith and our Jewish community.
In the words of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, z”l:
“There are certain things we only understand by doing. We only understand leadership by leading. We only understand authorship by writing. We only understand music by listening. Reading books about these things is not enough. So it is with faith. We only truly understand Judaism by living in accordance with its commands. You cannot comprehend a faith from the outside. Doing leads to understanding.”
This is true of building community. In order to appreciate and experience the possibilities of community, one first needs to “do” something to connect. Building community cannot be forced on anyone, just like developing an appreciation for music cannot be thrust on the listener. Sure, someone can “hear” music and decide if they like it or not, but to “understand” the music, they must engage.
As the Jewish Federation, we are tirelessly committed to involving the community, whether through our support of local Jewish organizations or through the community-wide programs and events we offer each year — even virtually during COVID. The Jewish Federation exists to connect with everyone across our community.
Federation is often misunderstood as only being a fundraising organization for the Jewish community. Yes, we lead the charge every year on our community’s Annual Campaign and emergency campaigns (Federation raised half a million last year for COVID response in addition to yearly fundraising!) and yes, we want every community member, no matter their financial ability to participate in a meaningful way.
The larger part of Federation’s purpose is to plan, convene, and connect the community.
When an anti-Semitic event occurs at one synagogue, the Federation liaises across the community to ensure every synagogue and agency is on high alert. When our local elected officials want to hear from the Jewish community, the Federation convenes the gathering. When our local schools want resources to teach real Holocaust education, the Federation operates the Holocaust Memorial Museum of San Antonio to keep our history and the memory of those who perished alive.
So, when the time comes and you’re encouraged to engage with the greater San Antonio Jewish community, please remember the words from this week’s Torah portion, “We will do, and we will understand.” Please participate. We believe you will understand.
Wishing everyone a wonderful and restful Shabbat shalom.