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Links in a Chain

By Warren Shapiro

One of my most cherished memories is of being called to the Torah when the Ten Commandments were read. I happened to have my two sons with me that morning and, as I recall, Yishai (who is now 7 ½) was a toddler in my arms. As the Torah was held up and shown to the Congregation, both his and Ariel’s eyes went wide and they watched silently.  In that instant I felt transported back to Mount Sinai, as if my boys and I were there when the Children of Israel first heard the same Ten Commandments.  Yet, at the same time, I was overwhelmed that so many thousands of years later, here we were – a father and his sons – hearing the same words, at the same time, in the same language. The weird part was that somehow, it felt like they somehow understood it too!

I was reminded of this when I read Daf 13, which includes a spirited debate (are there other kinds in the Talmud?) about whether the Shema must be said in Hebrew or if it can be said in any language and likewise, whether the Torah itself had to be read in its original form.

The conclusion of the debate was this; the Shema can be said in any language, as one must hear the eternal words, understand them and  take them to heart. This cannot be done if we don’t understand what has just been said.  Conversely, the Torah cannot be translated and must be read in its original form.

At first this seemed a bit odd and the reasoning a bit forced.  But, with some thought, I found sense in it and comforting sense at that! The Shema is our declaration of faith. It is what makes us who we are. It therefore makes sense that every Jew should understand what is being said and what it means.

On the other hand, the Torah is an eternal document that binds us literally back through the ages to Sinai.  Countless generations have heard it read in the same tongue.  It is that sameness, that unamended expression that binds us to the generations before and which binds the next generations to us. It reminds us that our faith transcends time and place and remains constant.  And it was this that so moved me that day – that very feeling that me and my beautiful boys were taking our place in a never-ending cycle; one that had defied the ages and every challenge that could be thrown at it.

Yet, at the same time, we need to understand who we are and why.  My children need to learn not only how we came to this point, but why it matters. This is the power of the Shema, taught to them in a language they understand and in a way that they will appreciate.  It is the last thing we sing with them every night and as sleep overtakes them they are blessed to know not only that they are part of an eternal people, but that the Eternal One is there to love them and guard over them.