Who is the God that Rilke is speaking to? Imagine yourself awake in the lonely night listening so intently for your parent, your child, your good friend sleeping right next door to you, just beyond the paper-thin walls separating the two of you. You can barely hear him or her breathing, you have no way of knowing how he or she is doing, or even if your loved one is alive! You are so paper-thin-walls close to each other, but even that distance is achingly far.
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So too, Rilke tells us, is his relationship with God. Rilke listens for any sound God would make in the world, the sound of God calling for help.
No God Next Door
In case you think that this way of talking to and about God is scandalously un-Jewish, think again. Though images of God as the all-powerful and all-knowing King abound in Jewish tradition, the idea of God as being in need or in search of Man, as Abraham Heschel put it, finds expression particularly in rabbinic and later mystical literature. Think of God as the divine father who suffers when His children suffer, of Shekhinah, the up-close-and-personal face of God who goes into exile when the children of Israel are exiled, and of the God of the Kabbalah Who cannot heal Herself or the world without human intervention.
Though the following is admittedly a highly creative interpretation, I want to suggest that our reading of the majestic first line of the Shma is pointing us to the same kind of relationship with our vulnerable God to which Rilke alludes. We just read the first paragraph of the Shma in its original setting, our Torah portion.
Getting to the Gospel: The Shema Statement
Little wonder that this line is recited twice a day by Jews, why it is the subject of so much roiling theological debate, why it is one of the first prayers that a Jew learns in infancy, and why it is the last thing we say before our deaths. Essentially, its assertion that God is our God and the God of the universe, that God is the absolute Oneness underlying all of existence, is what Judaism is all about: the ultimate protest against all idolatry, the ultimate faith statement that all existence is one.
That is tremendous. However, look at a number of things that are so strange about this first line of the Shma. Why does Moses tell us to listen to a statement of faith? Normally, when the Bible asks us to listen or to hear, it is asking us to pay attention to instructions or commands. Grammatically, it would have been more logical to say simply, Adonai Eloheinu Ekhad: the Lord our God is one. Why this superfluous phrase, the Lord is our God? We, the people of Israel need God as we are about to enter the promised land, but God needs us just as much.
A well known Talmudic comment Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Brakhot 6b elucidates this mutuality in a rather shocking way.
So too, I single you out for love and attention among everything in the world with what is written in My Tefillin. With this Talmudic story and Rilke in mind, how might we read this first line of the Shma differently? Let me offer my own translation: Yisrael, you who are always struggling with God and men: listen closely for Adonai our God Who is right next door to us in love and intimacy.
That same Adonai is alone and lonely.
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