November 23, 2010 at 6:39 pm, by Timna Burston
How many times have you repeated the Shema, bowing your head and covering your eyes? Dozens? Thousands? Maybe never? How many times have you found yourself, peeking through the slats of your fingers to make sure you are not alone, muttering, chanting, wailing those words, and calling on others to say with you, “The Lord is our God, the Lord is one.”? And then, as you are relieved to see that the rest of the congregation is peeking back at you through their own guilty fingers, you go through the motions, repeating the rest of the prayer, noting the times, places, body parts to be marked with the fact of monotheism—our sweet and ruthless covenant with the Almighty.
It must have been on a dark street on the way back from a pizza parlor, staring at an ice cream shop, that Jonah Rank and I were discussing the Shema. I say this first, because ice cream inspires a certain sublime devotion in both Jonah and me, and we were inevitably staring at an ice cream shop somewhere. In any case, we began to discuss the significance of what the rest of those mumbled lines mean—“You shall love the Lord, your God, with all of your heart and soul, and with all of your being. And these things, which I command you today, must be on your heart. And you must recite them to your children, and speak of them, as you sit in your home and when you are traveling down the road, when you lie down [to rest] and when you wake up. And you must bind them as a sign, to your hands; and they must be bound between your eyes, and you must write them on your doorposts and in your gateways.”
The text calls on Israel to love God. Not only love God, but have a kind of unabashed schoolgirl crush—to love Him with your heart and soul, with every fiber of your being. I can envision Israel sitting in her middle-school kilt, all glasses and braces and pimples and elbows, blushing each time she writes His name in her notebook, refusing to utter it out loud to the rest of the nations in Canaan Junior High. Whispering to her friends about how wonderful He is every hour of every day, daydreaming on the school bus, muttering His name each night before falling into desperate dreams and arising to a new day full of longing. Wearing a charm bracelet with His name on it, plastering her door with posters of Him, filling her world with His presence. In this desperate bout of excruciating love, every vision is somehow doused in beauty, every action leads her toward the goal of one day being truly His, His own.
I love the idea that we are commanded to love God with our heart, soul, eyes and hands. I love the idea that we are commanded to live out our life through the eyes of a young person in puppy love, painted in stark contrast, sprinkled in pixie-dust. I love these things because I am an artist and this is how we see the world—with a passion and a hunger to see it all, feel it all, with urgency and abandon. Our passion causes us to see what is not there, heightens our sensitivity, lowers our defenses. It leaves us breathless and blushing with whatever it is our hands created. The text draws a natural connection between the passionate lips that kiss and murmur, and the hands that create as my own paint-stained hands must do. Shema Yisrael, when you peek out at the world, allow yourself to be awe-struck. And then see what your hands have created. And see that it is good.