By Yael Splansky
The master poet of medieval Spain, Solomon ibn Gabirol, wrote:
“You are One, and You are exalted, above abasement and falling— not like a human being, who falls when alone.”1
But others disagree. Others dare to say that God is diminished—not in power but in effectiveness—when left alone. Others believe that God needs a partner; that God wants desperately not to be left alone.
The word echad has been translated as “singular,” meaning “one and only,” “unique” in all the universe. Echad can be translated to point to the eternality of God’s existence, that is: “infinite,” “ultimate,” as in “once and for all time.” Echad can be understood to mean “unified,” “whole,” “indivisible,” “absolute.” That is, while humanity may perceive God as having many conflicting attributes and roles, all of these, in fact, belong to one complete and total God. Andechad has been translated with an eye toward God’s relationship with the world, that is “alone,” or even “lonely.” Let’s consider: Could it be lonely at the top?
Not long ago, I visited a home for shivah. The recently widowed was struggling with her loss, her own mortality, and her God. She recalled a childhood memory, which was still haunting her. Her mother had instructed her, “Don’t ever give up on God. You need God and God needs you.” As a young girl she had to sleep in the chair by her mother’s bedside that night. Still now, as an elderly woman, she was horrified by this thought. “What could God possibly need me for?” she asked.
The Sage Abaye used to say: Let love for God be spread through your actions. If a person studies well and enables others to do so, if one is decent and trustworthy in business, what do people say? “Have you seen the behavior of so-and-so who lives by Torah? How beautiful! What a fine person!” Thus Isaiah 49:3 teaches: “You are My servant, Israel. I will be glorifiedthrough you,” (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 86a).
In this way, the Master is dependent on the servant. God’s glory, if we dare say it, depends on how we, human beings of flesh and blood live out our days and our years. This is the task of every Jew. Could it be that God “needs” us to walk and talk in such a way as to magnify God’s Presence in the world? Could it be that God “relies” on us to live in such a way as to call attention to God’s goodness? Could it be that God “depends” upon us to stand (or sit) to recite the Sh’ma and testify to God’s Oneness?
Deuteronomy 6:4, known as the Sh’ma, is written in the Torah scroll with two letters larger than the rest. There are many teachings as to why this might be. One insight comes when the two letters—ayin and dalet—are put together to reveal the Hebrew word, eid, meaning “witness.” Each time we recite the Sh’ma-formula, we act as witness and give testimony to the one God. Commenting on the verse, “You are My witnesses” (Isaiah 43:10), the Rabbis imagine God saying, “When you are My witnesses, I am God. When you are not My witnesses, it is as if I am not God” (P’sikta D’Rav Kahana, piska 12:6; Sifrei 346). Of course God was always God, but until Abraham came along and pointed and said, “This is the one God of the universe,” it was as if God did not exist. In this way, strange as it may sound, God is dependent on humanity.
When teaching about the Sh’ma in the summer of 2003, Rabbi David Hartman warned that depending on another must not be mistaken as a sign of weakness. In secular life, independence may be the sought-after mark of strength, but in Judaism, healthy interdependence is the ideal. We learned this at Sinai. In God’s abounding love, we were invited into the covenantal relationship, to contribute toward God’s greatness. Hartman recalled the early Rabbinic tradition of reciting the Ten Commandments together with theSh’ma. That practice allowed us to relive the moment at Sinai, when God said, Sh’ma, Yisrael, “Please listen to Me,” and we responded, Nishmah, “Yes, we are listening.” In his book, A Living Covenant, Hartman commented: “There is…the need of lovers to share with each other the situations of vulnerability that either may experience. When you discuss your needs in a love relationship, you do not necessarily expect your beloved to solve your problems. Reassurance and comfort may be gained simply through knowing that your beloved listens to you in your anguish and that you are not alone…”2 God is always one, but it could be said that at Sinai, God was no longer alone.
The upcoming Shabbat Nachamu, Shabbat of Comfort, answers the innocent and profound question of the young girl-widow: “What could God possibly need me for?” On Tishah B’Av we confront the possibility that God can be distant and our relationship can take a beating. But on Shabbat Nachamu the covenantal relationship is restored and we reclaim the responsibility to protect God from the dangers of being unknown, ignored, or forgotten. We recommit to take up the mitzvot and rescue God from the oblivion of irrelevance. This is the urgency behind the command, “Sh’ma!” “Listen!” For God’ssake, “Hear!” Literally, for God’s sake: “Listen, O Israel!”
1. Solomon ibn Gabirol, “Crown of Sovereignty” part 1, verse 2, adapted from Bernard Lewis, trans., Music of a Distant Drum: Classical Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and Hebrew Poems (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001) 2. See also: Rabbi David Hartman, “Individual and Community Prayer: The Dependency of Covenantal Love” in A Living Covenant (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1985) p.164
Rabbi Yael Splansky is an associate rabbi of Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto, Canada. She is the editor of Siddur Pirchei Kodesh, the chair of the Reform Rabbis of Greater Toronto, and a fourth-generation Reform rabbi.