Here are some reflections on this week's Torah reading, Parshat Vayechi.
This week's Torah portion features Jacob (now famous from the previous stories of wrestling with an angel and as the father of long-lost son Joseph) on his deathbed. As was the tradition at the time, he blesses his twelve sons. At first glance, this event may not seem that significant, the blessing they say is one we have heard many times before "Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem echad," "Hear, Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one."
What is noteworthy is that this is the first time that arguably the most famous sentence in all of Judaism is featured. Most people believe that the events that take place on Mount Sinai, after the exodus from Egypt, launch the birth of the Jewish people. God passes down the Ten Commandments through Moses, and the Jewish people's covenant with God is born. Let me challenge that perspective. What if we think about Jacob's blessings and the first recitation of the Shema as the birth of the Jewish people instead?
As part of Jacob's blessing to his sons he assigns the tribes to be different and to have unique roles in the community: leaders, priests, soldiers, judges, farmers, scholars, and so on. Just as Jacob blessed his sons to be different, today there are many roles and ways that people practice Judaism. We have many sects and movements that Jews subscribe to. Jews can be Reconstructionist, Humanist, Conservative, Reform, Orthodox, Messianic, and Karaite, just to name a few.
There was one thing, however, that kept all of the brothers together: the Shema. Even after Jacob blessed them all to be different, they came together as one people in their recitation of the Shema on his death bed. In the same way, each different type of Judaism recites the Shema in some form that is meaningful for them and believes in the same higher power, whatever form that takes. We are all united in the words that form one of the central pillars of our faith, and in doing that, we are united as a people just like Jacob's sons.