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A few words can help rebuild Jewish life

What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared with what lies within us. – Ralph Waldo Emerson CHICAGO, April 27 (JTA) — On May 26 this year we celebrate a “stealth” holiday, Shavuot. It is little-known to most Jews, but it is one of the most important of our holidays, commemorating the introduction of the Torah to the Jewish people and the world. The Torah introduced decency, civility and humanity to a culture marked by child sacrifice and brutal paganism. The three great monotheistic religions emanated from this moment in time. It marked the advent of the Jews as the “People of the Book.” The book’s name is the Torah. This event’s impact has changed the course of human history. The rabbis saw the recitation of the Shema as a recapitulation of the revelation at Mt. Sinai. It is the quintessential Jewish prayer that encapsulates what it means to be a Jew. Traditionally, Jews have recited it upon waking in the morning and before retiring at bedtime. It consists of six words: “Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad.” Hear O Israel, the Lord is our G-d, the Lord is one. These six words form the basis of identity for all Jews and have shaped the spiritual development of millions of souls throughout our history. They are the 4,000-year-old direct and unaltered link between the Jews at Mt. Sinai and the Jews of modernity. It is the Shema that constituted the last words on the lips of individuals as they were about to meet their maker, from the time of the murders of Rabbi Akiva and his students to the martyrs and victims of the Holocaust. The essential meaning of this prayer is that notwithstanding the powerful forces of objects of alternate worship — power, money, celebrity — Jews must focus their worship on a G-d that is singular, unified and harmonious. These six words attest to the inner strength and conviction needed to follow the right path, despite the alluring influences that pull us in other directions. These words reaffirm our covenant with G-d as a nation. Not as individuals, but as one people. It is important to further understand that the next verse after these six words is the concept of “v’shinantam l’vanechah.” This is the clear message that after we, as individuals, accept and understand the meaning of our Jewish affiliation, we as a community are obligated to teach our heritage to all of our children. Somehow, though, over time, we have evolved into a Jewish community galvanized solely by the negative threats of external enemies. Quite understandably, we have developed communal organizations that vociferously speak out against anti-Semitism and that are ferocious in their vigilance against various ills: anti-defamation, anti-poverty, anti-discrimination and anti-terrorism. We have become the “never again” generation, but along the way, we seem to have forgotten the simple words of the Shema. The Israeli writer Aharon Appelfeld has described modern Jews as having amputated our past, leaving in place of the internal organs of our soul a black hole of identity. We must alter this condition. A magnificently simple but powerful instrument of faith has been initiated by Skokie, Ill., psychologist, Steve Neren. It is called the “Shema Campaign.” The brilliance lies in its easily understood directive. What if every Jew said, with clarity and forcefulness, the six words of Shema just before going to bed every night? What if every mother and father recited these six words with their children at bedtime just before they gave them a good-night kiss? What if every grandchild called their grandparent at night and recited the six words together? Think of the memories and impressions every child would have. This action is easy to take and doesn’t cost a penny, but the potential impact on the future of our children’s path is incalculable. What would the future of the Jewish people look like, if all of our children were taught to say these six words from their infancy? The disunity of our people might dissipate under the influence of the unity of the Shema. To fully appreciate the potential of this seemingly simple effort, it is important to understand the “Butterfly Effect.” At the December 1972 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, the world was sent abuzz when Edward Lorenz presented a paper entitled, “Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil set off a Tornado in Texas?” He concluded that slight differences in one variable had profound effects on the outcome of the worldwide ecological system. If a tiny butterfly can impact weather conditions around the world, the possibilities for changing the status quo in Jewish affiliation are endless. Our sages tell us that in the time period between Passover and Shavuot we should learn Pirkei Avot, the Sayings of Our Fathers. It is there that we find the concept of “mitzvah goreret mitzvah,” meaning that one good deed leads to another good deed. The resulting outcome of cumulative good deeds could theoretically be enormous and yet remain unknown to the initial do-gooder. This article will be read by more than a hundred thousand individuals. If readers took this challenge to heart and implemented the “Shema Campaign,” and the community seriously attempted to Jewishly educate our youth, who knows what the “Butterfly Effect” of little children reciting the Shema would be on the Jewish community around the world. Perhaps it would set off a “tornado” of Jewish spirituality and rejuvenation. George D. Hanus is the chairman of the Jewish Broadcasting Network and the World Jewish Digest, both not-for-profit organizations dedicated to educating the community about issues confronting Israel and world Jewry.