If you were cast away on an island with just one Jewish text for company, which would you choose?
This week Rabbi Jeffrey Newman selects: The Shema
My imaginative experience of desert islands leads me to believe that I shall suffer waves of feeling, quickly passing from hope to despair, from joy to fear, from decisiveness to uncertainty. I shall need to hold on to anything known, stable and clear. Maybe I will be able to remember and repeat the Shema, to bring me comfort and guidance.
The first word with its complexity of meaning between ‘hear’, ‘listen’ and ‘understand’ already provides a deepening into the centrality of my being, helps me to become myself, to nourish my soul – the soul of ‘Israel’, that is, the angelic side of Jacob, the heel, the trickster and I am both. Can I be a Jew on a desert island, without community, without others? The word ‘Israel’ will give me much to ponder, of my history and the history of my people. I shall wonder what might be happening in the world outside, to Israel the state, and in Europe.
I’m at the third word ’YHWH’, pronounced, of course, Adonai. How much turns upon this? But on my desert island, I shall want to allow the out-in rhythm of the breath YAH-WEH to assert itself to calm me in my anxiety and centre my being in the Being of Existence.
The meditative opportunities of the Shema here and with the next two words may provide sufficient clarity to see the next step in my lonely existence: food, clothing, shelter?
Yes: my text is the Shema, without question, known and loved, providing greater depth and intensity than I shall ever be able to plumb, but also full of opportunities of engagement with memories, leading me when I am in a playful mood, hither and thither, raising questions, enriching my mind and life.
With it I may even be granted sufficient joy that I shall not wish to be rescued or escape. For, surely, though no man may be an island, each of us does, much of the time, inhabit their own island – even when surrounded by others?
• Jeffrey Newman is rabbi emeritus of Finchley Reform Synagogue