I’ve been working with Renewal Judaism for more than twenty years. When I first contacted Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Reb Zalman, zichrono l’bracha (obm) in the early days of the internet (I found his name while glancing through a roster of AmericaOnLine members) he told me that I had to meet his friend Reb Dovid, David Wolfe-Blank, zichrono l’bracha, who was also living in Seattle. Although I am, and always have been (even in my “vacation” from Judaism in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s (sex, drugs and rock-n-roll) “orthodox”; the synagogue that I would only occasionally attend was orthodox, and traditional Torah study, what we call “learning”, Mishna and occasionally even Gemara, were never too far away), I was having a difficult time, to say the very least, trying to fit into the Seattle communities as a former Israeli, father of two (and then three and then four), on my way to earning orthodox smicha (rabbinic ordination). I needed a fresh breath of air (one of the reasons we, as a family, had moved from Jerusalem to Seattle was, specifically, for the clean fresh air (those years, the ones before the recent explosive growth and accompanying traffic!), but the very “freshness” of the air seemed to have filtered out the type Jewish inspiration and motivation we needed as a family. Although I never found a home with Renewal, I did get to know a number of remarkable people, foremost among them Reb Dovid, z”l, and I very much enjoyed his friendship for several years.
He tragically died in an horrific auto accident in 1998, and for several years after, Eitz Or, the Seattle synagogue he had led, would always set up a memorial table where/whenever it met. There would usually be a portrait, a number of his meta-parshiot, commentaries on the weekly Torah reading, along with several of his more memorable sayings. The one which always struck me said, “It always says the same thing on every page”.
Although we discussed that idea a number of times, he never really wanted to limit what universal message was. In the following twenty-some years, I’ve given it a lot of thought, and I always come up with the same answer.
The underlying message on “every page” (be it the siddur, chumash, talmud, halacha, zohar, chassidut, kabbalah, mussar, midrash or anything else is, very simply, Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad, Fill your ears/heart/mind/soul, Israel, The Unknowable, Not Even Speakable God Who Surrounds Us And Also Fills Us Completely Is One And The Same (and we, and our entire world, is One with Him).
That’s all nice, but there’s a great distance to travel between intellectually acknowledging that this is the essential core of our every prayer, every Torah lesson, every meditation, every good deed and mitzvah, every personal interaction and bringing that into active, experiential and shared reality.
We pay lip service to God every day, just as I suspect do those of all other faiths (and also those “faiths” without a deity pay lip service to their eternal truths). It’s not so much that we’re lazy, but it’s even been an halachic consensus for quite a while that we are a weak generation, and getting weaker each successive generation. (This is the main reason why even many of the holiest haredi, ultra-orthodox, rabbis actively discourage fasting for all accept the youngest, healthiest, most fit. The rest of us, especially on those fasts which are more lenient to begin with, usually spend more time thinking about our stomachs than about anything slightly approaching The Holy when our blood-sugar first begins to plummet.
Not only that, but modern man is so engaged with the external outer world, be it with our necessary labor, with our all-too-engaging electronic toys, with our 24/7 news cycle, with our compulsion to acquire more and more expensive and addictive toys, it seems there’s little if any time to contemplate serious profundities. It just makes you too different, too much an outsider.
Nonetheless, even completely caught up in the crassest of material expeditions, we can remind ourselves that not only are we, as well as our fellow students, friends and family, our competitors and rivals, we’re all just manifestations of the One, the One energy, the One material, the One unifying energy. In fact, even that crassest material we pursue, whatever it might be, must necessarily also be fully comprised of Adonai Echad, because, if we really understand what we’re saying, what else is there?
This isn’t meant to open the door to spurious quasi-mathematical fallacy where, misapplying the “Transitive Rule of Numbers” we can equate the good with the evil by saying if A = C and B = C, A=C since even though everything, ultimately is God, or at least one of His infinite aspects, the important recognition is that His manifestations are not identical with each other. Part of The Whole is not identical to The Whole.
On the other hand, it does oblige us to see The Divine and The Perfect not just in every person we encounter, but every experience, no matter how painful or evil, contains by necessity at least a spark, a Netzutz of the Holy, the Kadosh.
Constantly remembering and always meditating (at least in the background) on this ubiquitous Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad, allows us to perform our deepest Avoda, Holy Service, the find, redeem and lift every Netzutz Kodesh that is uniquely relevant to our unique Neshama and lift it to the Holy Oneness of the universe.
Returning to the actual books, each of which pages contain this message, we see that our challenge in davening (praying) and/or learning is to find this Achdut, integral unity with The Creator, not just in every page, but in every line, every word, even every holy letter and also individual ink strokes that make up each letter, not to mention the white, empty space surrounding each and every letter.
I am indebted to the Meor Eynayim on Parshat Matot for his insights into the concept of Netzutzei HaKodesh, Holy Sparks.