By: Rabbi Heidi Cohen
Shema – the most powerful and familiar prayer on our lips. From the time we were small children and throughout our life times, it is the Shema that we all know. Those six words evoke such emotion and connection. We teach them to our children and we pray that they will be the final words on our lips when we die.
In this final parashah of Genesis, Vayechi, Jacob is about to die. Jacob, the one person in Torah whose entire name was changed, from Jacob to Israel. And from him we are called Israel; we are those who wrestle each day with God and our Jewish identity. But Jacob has some unfinished business he must take care of before he departs. So he calls forward his sons to deliver his blessings and final instructions to return his body to the cave where his father and grandfather, Isaac and Abraham, are buried.
A midrash from D’varim Rabbah recalls how when Jacob calls all of his 12 sons to gather around him, he is concerned that all that has been passed on to him through his father Isaac, his grandfather, Abraham, and from God, will be lost with this new generation. He is struggling with his death because he is concerned that once he is gone, no one will continue this relationship with God and the responsibility of being the Israelite people and the commitment to this faith. But his sons gather around him and say, ‘Shema Yisrael, listen Dad (Jacob), ADONAI Eloheinu ADONAI echad!, ADONAI is our God, ADONAI is one.’ Upon hearing this conviction, hearing in their voices that all will not be lost, Jacob is able to say in a final quiet voice, ‘baruch Shem k’vod malchuto l’olam va’ed’ Blessed is God’s holy name, now and forever; I know that you will not forget your covenant with God, that you will teach it to your children, and pass it on for generations to come.
Just a couple of week’s ago, the Union for Reform Judaism held the National Biennial outside of Washington DC. It was the largest Biennial in Reform Jewish history during which lay and professional leaders gathered to learn, pray and study. It is an inspirational experience, one that I hope more of us will participate in two years when the Biennial will be in San Diego, CA.
During the Biennial, current URJ President, Rabbi Eric Yoffie and incoming President, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, spoke about the future of the Reform movement and Judaism as a whole. Rabbi Yoffie reflected on his past 16 years as URJ President and reminded Rabbi Jacobs to change everything. That the work we have engaged in over his tenure should continue, that we should create more ways of connecting to all of our congregants and the Jewish people as a whole. Our congregations and the movement are constantly asking, “who we are and how do we operate?” Rabbi Jacobs shared that we have a responsibility to work toward the fulfillment of our dreams, including “making dreams into reality, combating a world of want and challenge through concrete plans that seize opportunities, weathering tough times, and lighting the way forward with Torah as our guide.”
The Reform movement is only 200 years old and we are Reform Jews, meaning, we’re not done yet! We are far from completing the work of envisioning what Judaism is in our world. Both Rabbis Yoffie and Jacobs remind us that our Jewish world is not the same as it was when we were younger. There is a strong foundation from which we stand, but to remain relevant, to continue to connect in an ever changing world, we have a responsibility to create change while holding on tightly to the tenets of our Jewish faith and halachah. But that change has to be made together. No one person can do it alone. And if we want Judaism to be passed on to the next generation, we have to take responsibility for creating, sustaining and supporting Judaism for ourselves, our children and our future.
Jacob (Israel) was afraid to die because he was afraid that once he was gone, all that had been passed on to him would end with his final breath. But his children gathered around and promised to be links in the chain of tradition that began with Abraham and Sarah and continues today.
How are you that link? How will you promise Israel that when you are gone, Judaism is not gone with your final breath? No one can take the responsibility for you; we must all be partners in continuing the promise made by Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
You can read the full text of Rabbi Yoffie’s and Rabbi Jacob’s speeches at: