By Rabbi Elchanan Poupko
One of the things I ask my students to do is to know Shema Yisrael – the Jewish proclamation of faith – by heart. I want them to memorize the words of the Jewish proclamation followed by Ve’ahavta. While most, if not all, of my tests, are written, this test they needed to be able to say it in the same way other teachers may ask their students to recite Marc Antony’s speech from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. I arrived in class and asked students to say the Shema by heart. Students were to do it one at a time, so I can give them the grade they deserved. I did not imagine this test would bring me to tears, nor did I anticipate being shaken by this for the next few days.
Student after student they got up and did a beautiful job reciting the Shema. Suddenly, when it came to a certain student, I noticed that my eyes were filling up with tears. There I was in front of a happy student who was proclaiming the Shema, fighting off those stubborn tears welling up in my eyes; trying not to sob in front of the whole class. Why was I suddenly crying?
As the student proudly recited the Shema, I remembered that this student’s grandfather was a Holocaust survivor. I remembered what this man had been through. How the world’s almost strongest military and cultural power of the time – Germany – dedicated its all to make sure that this man, his people, and what we stand for, be eradicated. I remembered all that Hitler had done to try and make sure that the Shema is buried and disappear forever. I saw how all those attempts were disproved through the outstanding power and potential of Jewish children, “Out of the mouth of children and babies You have established strength because of Your adversaries, in order to put an end to enemy and avenger.” (Psalms 8) I cried.
Suddenly I also remembered all those who died in the Holocaust; those who died with the Shema – that same proclamation of faith – on their lips. “Hear O Israel, Hashem is our God, Hashem is one.”
I realized how this very same statement which was once a statement of the end of Jewish life, now marks its beginning. I saw the very same statement that was heard is the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Majdanek, and Treblinka now echoed in the halls of a Jewish day school. The words which all too often during centuries of persecution were proclaimed in the last moments of life now marked triumph and survival.
The next words in the Shema: “And you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your means,” reminded me of those dedicated grandparents who have been through the greatest horrors on earth, just to be able to convey their own love for Judaism to a Jewish grandchild.
When my student continued the prayer: “And these words, which I command you this day, shall be upon your heart” I thought of all those displaced as children from their warm homes and loving communities who kept the words of our faith deeply engraved on their hearts.
I thought of those who emerged out of the horrors of the Holocaust just to fulfill the words: “And you shall teach them to your sons and speak of them” making sure that their children and grandchildren continue to live by the same love for Judaism they have seen at the homes of their parents and grandparents.
The prayer then continues with what was meant as a message to Jewish individuals, and became the story of our nation commanding us to keep these words “when you sit in your house, and when you walk on the way.” Though we have been able as a people to maintain our faith in our homeland or communities we built, these words have also been with us on our way. These words are to be with us “when you lie down and when you rise up.” Through the ashes of Auschwitz and through the revival of Jewish life, these words have been with us.
Tears of joy and pride mixed with tears of loss and yearning mixed as I thought of the privilege I had to stand there with my students echoing these words, thousands of years old. I realized what an awesome responsibility it is for Jewish educators to make sure that those words of the Shema resonate with students not just as they “sit in the house,” and study in a Jewish day school, but that they remain with them even as they “walk on their way,” and take their own path creating their own lives. I recognized the profundity of the Jewish community’s responsibility to all those who were uprooted as children from their homes, schools, and communities and sent to ghettos, labor camps, or escaping to the forest – robing them from the Jewish education they deserved. We must make sure that their grandchildren get a Jewish education; that they too know the Shema. It is our responsibility to them to help turn that very same proclamation of Jewish faith into something that marks the beginning of Jewish life.
Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a rabbi, teacher, and a writer. He is the president of EITAN-The American Israeli Jewish Network and lives with his wife in New York City.