AGUDAS ISRAEL CONGREGATION
Welcome to our Synagogue!
There are More Things in Heaven and Earth
I was once asked to come to the bedside of a dying woman by her family. I went as I was asked, and when I arrived at her hospital room, I was introduced to the woman’s family, her sons and daughters-in law, her grandchildren and one great granddaughter. They told me about the woman whose end was near, her life in her family, and her professional life in both Chicago, where she spent most of her life, and in Florida to which she moved in her early sixties. And then I was ushered into the room.
She lay quietly on the bed, hooked up to a feeding tube and the hydration tube. She was, they said, in a coma, and hadn’t spoken for perhaps two days. Her doctors said she hadn’t long. I did not know this woman or her family before this moment, but I felt the power of her family’s love and respect for her. It was a profound moment for me and, I believe, for everyone in that room, partly because I was there in my capacity as rabbi.
I asked if they would like me to read vidui, the prayers recited as a confession before dying, and they agreed. At a certain point in this brief service, we read the first line of the Shema. I read to her, “Shema yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu…” At that moment this woman opened her eyes and said, “Adonai echad, God is one.” And then she closed her eyes. She passed three days later.
That moment is unforgettable, that woman opening her eyes to complete a prayer that is so central to our tradition. There was something in the recitation that awoke something in her consciousness and compelled her to awaken and complete the line of that prayer.
And so it is that shards of the Tradition become embedded in us, awaken us to flashes of spiritual insight that link to something beyond us, something beyond humanity, something that transcends the here and the now. That moment with that woman and her beloved family conveyed a wonderful sense of meaning to me that had less to do with the two words she uttered to complete Shema Yisrael, and more to do with a sense of wholeness.
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” says Hamlet to Horatio. There is more in living than what we experience on the outer surface of things, than what we see and touch with our hands, much more.
The greatness of Judaism is to be found in its ability to explore the transcendent and link it to physical things. We make Kiddush over wine. Through the blessing and drinking wine, we usher in Shabbat or Pesach or Rosh Hashanah. We bless a piece of bread and invoke the God who lies behind the place and process that brought us the bread we bless, a wonderful circularity. And so forth.
We are well into the summer. The harsher than usual winter is past. As we enjoy the outdoors, the garden, the bicycle ride, the tennis course, the golf course, the barbecue, let us work to see all of those pleasing things as part of the larger whole of which we are a part. Let us awaken ourselves to the blessings of this wonderful world.
Rabbi Philip Cohen, Ph.D.