Extending the Echad

D’var Torah for Va’etchanan (August 17, 2019); Beth Israel Center, Madison, WI

Shabbat shalom! First, thanks to Matt Banks, who encouraged this d’var. In appreciation, I’ll be citing one of Matt’s favorite Jewish scholars, the Sfas Emes, whose title means “language of truth.” That’s a thing you should keep in the back of your head.

I’ll also reference Tisha B’Av and set theory; Karl Marx and Job; and the Tower of Babel and Star Trek. All in 15 minutes. Here we go.

In today’s parsha, Va’etchanan, we — finally! — encounter our focal credo, the Shema:

Shema Yisrael YHWH Eloheinu YHWH Echad.

Echad. One. Let’s focus on that word. What does this one-ness mean? We have only one god, not many, of course. That’s what made Yisrael exceptional. But this idea of being exceptional, being chosen, being singled out by the singular YHWH Eloheinu — this should give us pause. Can we insist on our particularity — on maintaining ourselves as an exceptional people, a people apart, without also implying our superiority, or betraying a reluctance to stand in solidarity with others, those who are not Jewish?

The Sfas Emes presents another meaning of one-ness, which emphasizes a more universal idea of being particular, “a part”:

The proclamation of oneness [in] Shema… really needs to be understood as it truly is…. not [simply] that YHWH is the only god… but deeper than that: there is no being other than YHWH…. It is only because of [YHWH’s] tsimtsum [contraction]… that holiness descended rung after rung, until actual physical things were formed out of it.[1]

We are in our very being, the Sfas Emes tells us, part of a cosmic holiness, a cosmic whole.

The haftarah Anna so beautifully chanted presents a similar vision of one-ness, in terms both transcendent and tragic. Isaiah says:

“The Presence of YHWH shall appear, and all flesh, as one, shall behold.”

But Isaiah’s vision of transcendence quickly turns tragic: “All flesh,” he continues “is grass, all its goodness like flowers of the field; grass withers, flowers fade when the breath of YHWH blows on them.”

This, remember, is from the first of seven haftarot of consolation following Tisha B’Av; it’s the haftarah for Shabbes Nachamu, the shabbes of comfort.

What comfort, what consolation, does Isaiah’s vision provide us?

It assures us that despite the tragically brief duration of both the Temple and our lives, we will eventually become one: transcendent in the presence of YHWH.

That vision of one-ness, though, speaks to a future world, olam ha-ba, a world to come. Which may come as cold comfort to those of us seeking one-ness now, olam ha-ze, in this world.

This is the world our tradition typically directs us to focus upon. And in fact, with respect to the Shema’s echad, this is the world our legal commentaries emphasize. In Berakhot[2] for instance, we’re instructed: “Those who extend ‘echad’ [while reciting Shema], their days and years are [likewise] extended.”

If we extend the echad, we’ll live longer. This is more in keeping with our emphasis on loving this world over promises of a next world or afterlife. Loving YHWH with all our souls, all our hearts, and all our might doesn’t mean we can’t, or shouldn’t, love the lives we’re living, and the world we’re living them in.

But how, exactly, do we extend the echad?

Strictly in linguistic terms, Berachot reports: “Rav Aḥa bar Ya’akov said, [extend] the dalet. Rav Ashi said, only so long as [one] does not hurry the cḥet.” Rambam says much the same.[3] The Shulchan Aruch adds, “One should not… extend the aleph.”[4]

Extend the dalet. Don’t hurry the chet. And don’t extend the aleph.

This last seems ironic. All Hebrew letters have a numeric value, and aleph’s value is one. Aleph symbolizes one-ness. Yet in the focal word (the echad, the one) of our focal credo (the Shema), we do not focus on the aleph, the first letter, the symbol of one-ness.

Maybe we might dwell a bit more on the aleph, give the aleph its due.

How?

We could consider Georg Cantor, the 19th-century mathematician. Cantor was fascinated by the concept of infinity. He associated it with God. He showed that many sets of numbers are infinite, and yet different infinite sets have different sizes. Think about that: infinity comes in different sizes. And those sizes can be measured.

And the symbol Cantor chose to represent those measures of infinity?

Aleph.

In fact, there’s a story that Cantor — who some claim had Jewish roots — chose the aleph because it’s the first letter of Ein Sof: the kabbalistic concept of infinity, identified with YHWH.

If the aleph of the Shema’s echad is, à la Cantor, an aleph-number — if it symbolizes Isaiah’s transcendent Presence, and the infinite YHWH of the Sfas Emes — then we don’t extend it because we’re not supposed to be eager to die and rejoin that infinite aleph, the [w]hol[l]y cosmic one.

What’s more, according to the Shulchan Aruch[5], the echad’s chet (with a value of 8) represents the seven heavens plus one earth, and the dalet (with a value of 4) the earth’s four dimensions. So in pronouncing “echad,” from aleph to dalet, we pass from the infinite one to our own world.

We’re meant to embrace both the fleetingness of the aleph and the extension of the dalet. To pursue, in the hidden face of YHWH’s transcendent presence, one-ness here, on earth, in language and in practice.

How might we do this — extend the echad not just in word, but also in deed?

Shifting from the cosmic to the cosmopolitan, we could consider Karl Marx, who definitely had Jewish roots, and who, in his 1844 Manuscripts, wrote that humanity is a “species-being.”

Now, we know humans constitute one particular species, Homo sapiens. But there’s nothing singular about that. There are many species on earth, and nothing exceptional about being part of one.

But species-being means more than that, according to Marx. Just as, for the Sfas Emes, the echad of the Shema means more than YHWH being one god, species-being means more than humans being one species: more than our bare biological one-ness.

What’s exceptional about humans, Marx says, what makes our species-being, is that each of us, as an individual, is a consciously social being. We each share in our collective humanity, and so we transcend our finite individuality.

But, Marx argues, such species-being requires a struggle to overcome what separates us, what alienates us from one another.

What might it mean for us to undertake that struggle, as Jews, to strive toward Marx’s transcendence — one which seems so different from Isaiah’s?

Perhaps turning back to the haftarah, and Isaiah’s more cosmic vision, could provide direction. After describing our transcendent and tragic fate, Isaiah issues a series of challenging questions:

“Who measured the waters with the hollow of [a] hand, and gauged the skies with a span? And meted earth’s dust with a measure?… Who has plumbed the mind of YHWH, what [hu]man could recount YHWH’s plan?”

These questions challenge us to confront an immeasurable infinite: a reach which seems to exceed our grasp. They also prefigure questions in another text, one of three texts the Shulchan Aruch[6] permits us to read on Tisha B’Av: the Book of Job.

Which happens to have a new translation by Edward Greenstein of Bar-Ilan University. It’s something of a reboot, a new twist on the classic story.

We know the classic story. Job’s a devout man who repeatedly suffers apparently meaningless catastrophes at the hand of YHWH. He finally protests, and YHWH, in response, challenges him with cosmic questions that echo Isaiah’s:

“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations?… Do you know who fixed its dimensions, or who measured it with a line? Can you bind the bands of the Pleiades, or loose those of Orion?”

As the critic James Parker, reviewing Greenstein’s translation in an upcoming issue of The Atlantic, puts it, “The human intellect shrinks before the onslaught.”[7]

But Greenstein’s Job doesn’t shrink. His Job responds not with the classic surrender, but with resistance: a resistance manifested in a push for knowledge and truth. He attempts to answer YHWH’s questions through firsthand experience and honest reporting.

Greenstein’s Job thus acts in the best tradition of Yisrael: he wrestles with and against El-oheinu, our God. He grapples with the infinite. And in the end, YHWH praises and rewards him for it.

Could we follow this example, and grapple with infinity, as Job did? As Cantor did?

Cantor was controversial. Theologians found his theories threatening. His concepts of infinity challenged their understanding of divinity. He was accused of being “a corrupter of the youth.”

Nevertheless, he persisted. And so, too, did his aleph-numbers. David Hilbert, a great mathematician himself, proclaimed, “No one shall expel us from the paradise that Cantor has created.” Hilbert declared that Cantor had discovered a “universal language.”

A universal language. If, as Bob Skloot taught us in his d’var last shabbes, language is a medium of truth, then would a universal language convey universal truth? Would it be a sfas emes, a language of truth? Greenstein’s Job might appreciate such a language.

But in our tradition, such a language can be a threat. Consider the fate of the Tower of Babel. Remember Hilbert’s proclamation: with this universal language, no one can expel us from Eden.

What would it mean to answer YHWH in this way?

To think through that question, let’s turn to another reboot, one that’s no less cosmic but a lot less sacred than Job: the upcoming Star Trek series, titled Picard.

I won’t assume you’re all geeks like me. I’ll fill you in.

Star Trek gives us a futuristic vision of Marx’s species-being: in the 24th century, humanity is enjoying peace, prosperity, and galactic exploration under the United Federation of Planets. Picard’s plot features this Federation’s frequent antagonist, the Borg: a collective consciousness, a hive-mind, comprising billions of techno-organic hybrids — cyborgs. Each individual Borg is indistinguishable from the next. They communicate via machine implants, telepathically; in effect, they share a universal language. They travel through the galaxy absorbing other civilizations, prefacing their arrival with a chilling announcement: “You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.”

The assimilating Borg versus the resisting Federation. Could a science-fiction premise be any more Jewish?

The Borg are a terrifying symbol of an alien and alienating technology run amok, coupled with a totalitarian leadership dedicated to rendering everyone the same. A perversion of Marx’s vision of species-being. And it’s easy, too easy, to connect this version to our real world, our real fears.

I worry that in the face of such fears, we’ll extend the echad only so far. That we’ll neglect the multiple possibilities of one-ness. That we’ll pull away from the universal, the cosmopolitan, and instead retreat into our credo, withdraw into our exceptional Jewishness, without an appreciation of our solidarity, as Jews, with all of humanity. That we’ll resist only assimilation, and in doing so neglect connections with others. The consolation, the comfort, of others.

Nachamu, nachamu ami,” Isaiah says at the start of the haftarah. “Comfort, oh comfort, my people.” Comfort not once, but twice.

Why twice? Perhaps it’s a message about doubling: being one, and then adding another. A message that as Jews — who have, as the haftarah observes, known what it is to suffer, and even to suffer kiflayim, doubly — we must redouble our commitment to comfort not just ourselves, but also others who are suffering.

Like Job, we don’t, and maybe can’t, know the reasons for that suffering. But we can, like Job, question it, as we do anything else that surpasses our understanding. We can, like Cantor, grapple with infinity. We can search and research; we can struggle for knowledge and truth. And we can resolve to use what we gain in that struggle not to set ourselves apart, but to bring humanity together, as one, in word and in deed.

And maybe we could find our own consolation, our own comfort, in that struggle. Embracing the fleetingness of the aleph means not knowing what might come; not knowing quite what might become of us — but knowing that at our deaths, we’ll be able to recite the Shema one final time, as Jews, to extend the echad as we die with the certainty that we’ve done all we could to extend it to everyone, every one, while we lived. Amen.

Notes

[1] The Language of Truth (1998 translation by Arthur Green), pp. xxxvii-xxxviii

[2] 13b

[3] “[One should sufficiently elongate the dalet in אחד in order to proclaim YHWH’s sovereignty over the heaven and the earth, and all four directions. The chet in אחד should not be shortened so that the word sounds like איחד (ee-chad)]” (Kriyat Shema (2:9), Mishneh Torah).

[4] Orach Chayim (61).

[5] Ibid.

[6] 554:1–3

[7] “And Then Job said Unto the Lord: You Can’t Be Serious”

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