On our summer vacation, I stayed up late one night in our cabin and was watching a crime TV show. The detectives, after some good sleuthing (and not so great dialogue), were interviewing witnesses and trying to convince various characters to testify in court. One after another, these characters opted not to testify either out of fear or disinterest. In the climax of the episode, just as the suspect looked like he would get away with murder, a young woman, who at the beginning of the episode was terrified of the suspect, came dramatically into the courtroom, took the stand, and placed the suspect at the scene of the crime.
Even if the show does not depict how criminal trials work, on TV, being a star witness makes for great drama. To find justice as the witness is to see something and say something. Her job is to testify and say that she was there and she saw the criminal commit the act; the courts do the rest. Many believe that spirituality is a form of witnessing. That God reveals truth and the task of the witness is to affirm and testify to that truth. This is what Webster’s Dictionary understands as “bearing witness,” to make a statement that something exists or is indeed true. In its most radical form, to be a spiritual witness is to be an avid spectator, even a fan of God, to point their finger and to raise a hand and cheer on belief.
Judaism has its own version of witnessing that begins in the Book of Exodus and culminates in this week’s Torah portion, Vaetchanan, in the Book of Deuteronomy. In Exodus, when Moses sees the miracle of the splitting of the sea and the Israelites safely make their way through the walls of water, he exclaims, “This is my God, and I will exalt the Holy One!” (Exodus 15:2) The rabbis add to this moment saying that no other prophet in history could point so clearly to God’s redemption and have such intimate knowledge of God’s power to liberate. (Mekhilta D’Rabbi Yishmael 15:3) What appears in the moment of redemption in the religious life of the nation brings stark spiritual clarity and purpose. The Israelites just experienced God’s outstretched arm and mighty hand, the terror of the plagues, the majesty of the splitting sea, and now for the first time in two hundred years, this generation, born into bondage and whose parents were born into bondange, can look upon the horizon and see a different future for themselves.
“This is my God, and I will exalt the Holy One!”
But now, some forty years later, in the Book of Deuteronomy, a new generation arises in the desert, never having seen the plagues or the sea or Mt. Sinai. How can they — and by extension — us, be a witness? Unlike the Israelites in Exodus, our spiritual lives are much more convoluted. Seldom, if ever, are there moments in our lives that give us the absolute grounding for epiphany. We mostly wander through our days filled with uncertainty and doubt, trying to make sense of the world around us and do the best we can. On the last day of Moses’ life, the day upon which the entire book of Deuteronomy takes place, Moses sees the insecurity in the faces of this next generation that did not bear witness to God’s power in the classical sense and takes the last moments of his life to teach them the guiding principles of Judaism.
What emerges from Moses’ teachings becomes the most binding part of global Jewish life. “Hear O’Israel, YHVH is our God, YHVH is One.” (Deuteronomy 6:4) These words, known as the Shema, are the closest thing Jews know to creed. They exclaim, in just six words, a statement of faith in God’s unity and uniqueness. So much so, that rabbis instructed that the two letters, the Ayin and the Dalet, found in the word shemA and echaD be enlarged in the writing of the Torah to be clear to the verse’s meaning, and to spell the word Eid which is Hebrew for “witness.” So powerful are they, that Jews are instructed to say these words twice a day, and to say them in the final moments of our lives.
Moses knew, however, that to be a witness of God is not just to see something and say something. To be a Jewish witness is to also do something. Unlike in Exodus, where Moses points to God and says, “this is God!”, in Deuteronomy, Moses points to the people who, like us, live with so much spiritual uncertainty, and asks them to listen. Moses dramatically shifts the focal point of spirituality in Deuteronomy from God to you and to me. The protagonists of the Torah are no longer the heroes or the prophets. In Deuteronomy, the main characters of the story are the witnesses themselves. In Jewish life to be a witness is not just to be a spectator or fan, but to be an active participant. In the Shema, Moses makes God as much of a witness to our lives as we are to God’s reality.
To be a Jewish witness, you cannot simply believe in God, you must believe in yourself. In Judaism you don’t pray to God without implicating yourself. When you pray for peace, safety, or love, in Jewish life, you don’t petition God without petitioning yourself. You can’t say, “God, give us peace” with your back turned on the world. You can’t pray, “God, heal us,” and turn your head away from our obligation to assure that the vulnerable, the lame, the sick, and the impoverished among us are cared for. You can’t pray to God, “El Chai VeKayam”, the Creator of all there is, and treat God’s creation with callousness, allow for its toxification, and desecration. You can’t pray for the peace of Jerusalem without pursuing the peace of Jerusalem. When we pray to God and say the Shema, it’s always us who are included in the prayer. It says “Shema Israel, listen Israel, after all.”
How do you be God’s witness in Jewish life? By being God’s accomplice.
When our lives feel so ambiguous and there are so few moments of moral and spiritual clarity, the Torah gives us a way of not just pointing our fingers and saying, “This is my God,” but by giving us an entire corpus of actions — mitzvot — to partner with God to liberate and to redeem, to love and cherish the world God has fashioned for us.