Posted on December 5, 2009 by Mosheh
One central aspect of religion and tradition is ritual. Regardless of one’s theological perspective on the meaning of religious ritual, ritual in and of itself plays a primary role in human life. People have both religious and not-necessarily-religious rituals for waking up, leisure time, family time, important life transitions (such as a bar mitzvah or getting one’s license), going to sleep, etc.
As much as many of us relish change and newness, we all rely and regularly make use of ritual to help us relax, feel comfortable, connected, or safe. This is a wise tool in a constantly changing world. When I say constantly changing, I don’t only mean the 21st century. Over two thousand years ago Socrates wrote about his sense of the world moving faster and faster with each generation. Thus, having a ritual to anchor us in time of transition is central. It is in part with this in mind that Jewish learning has become more meaningful for me recently.
The learning, to be honest, can feel as if far from meaningful, comfortable, or relaxing. However, I am here and more often than I generally give myself credit, I find jewels. One of these came early in the semester as I was wrestling with the topic of our very first Mishna. The very first topic was the regulations around the saying of the Shema prayer, from when to when, in what relation to the sun and the moon, in what relation to the meals of the temple priests, and to the meal of the poor person on Friday night. I asked myself over and over – why? Why does it matter the exact time from when it can be said? Until when can it be said? And, why this particular prayer for the first topic of Mishna Brachot?
I wrestled with this until I remembered that the Shema is also the prayer we are taught to say, if we remember, in our dying breaths. Then a moment from a movie about the life of Gandhi came to mind, and the Hindu tradition of also dying with the name of G-d on one’s lips. The picture slowly began to take shape.
Beyond and before the meaning of the Shema (which is a powerful topic and subject in its own right), is the power of having ritual for our most significant moments of transition, waking up, going to sleep, and death (depending on your theological perspective, either the final sleep, or the real waking up). You see, the Shema is so central because we want to have something that is so ingrained into our psyche, so reinforced with habit, supported by community, and filled with meaning (whether of G-d or human created), that it may, just may give us some moment of pause and connection at the most powerful time of transition. This something is the Shema and I personally think the sages placed it as not only the first topic of Mishna Brachot, but as it turns out the very first volume of Mishna and thus all of Talmud, to make sure every Jew builds this vessel thoroughly, so it is available when we need it.
Of course the peculiarity of what the Shema specifically is also vitally important. For that however, crack open the Mishna, ask your local Rabbi, or write me a comment and you’ll get a very subjective answer from this Yid in my next blog post.