Rabbi Sara Mason-Barkin, 7.31.20
Parashat V’Etchanan
Congregation Beth Israel, Scottsdale, Arizona

There is a short story attributed to Earnest Hemingway: Just six words.

“For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.”

Those six short words open up an entire universe. What happened to the baby? Who is selling the shoes? Is this a tragic nod to early life lost, or an underwhelming attempt at humor — as anyone knows, small babies don’t walk, and therefore, don’t wear shoes. These six short words lead us to more feelings, more questions, more conclusions… and, eventually, more stories.

I suppose, you could say…
Fewer words can tell us more.


More unsaid means more to say.

There is a beauty, and a challenge in expressing ourselves in just a few words. The space between them leaves room for wondering. For ambiguity. For stories about the stories.

Let’s try something. Take a moment. Go find a pad of paper, or a post it, or the back of a receipt. And a pen.

Of course. Don’t forget the pen.

Now, think about your day. Or your week. Or your year. Can you describe it in just six words?

Take a moment. Give it a try.

I tried this on facebook. Friends from around the country shared incredible reflections on their week.

Some were funny: for example,
“I doordashed ice cream yesterday afternoon.”

Others were wise:
“Got off screens. Went outside. Breathed.”

Others, a poignant snapshot into this unique moment in time:
“Surviving isn’t thriving, but I’m ok.”

Others shared thought provoking pandemic specific commentary:
“zoom, zoom, zoom but going nowhere.”

Even our Cantor, Seth Ettinger joined in:
“Cleaned my office… found my hat!”

Aren’t you all curious to know which hat he found? And why it was in his office? And how his office got messy enough to conceal a cantor-sized hat? I am. There has got to be more to the story.

More beyond the six short words.

Last week we began the book of Deuteronomy, or Dvarim, the fifth and final book of the Torah. In many ways it is the hardest book. It is written in a more formal style than the other books. It’s wordier, with longer sentences and more complicated grammatical structures. Some attribute this to different authorship. Or, perhaps the stylistic difference is a narrative choice: Moses now knows, that despite his pleas to God to reconsider, he will not see the promised land. He knows that this is his last chance to address his community, to tell his story, to reflect on his life and concretize his legacy.

And so, he keeps talking, perhaps to prolong the inevitable. Perhaps because he is already mourning his own end of life. The book of Deuteronomy is his love letter, his final message to us and to God.

And deep within the words, and the memories, and the hopes for the future, right here in this week’s parasha, v’etchanan, there are six important Hebrew words.

שְׁמַ֖ע יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ יְהוָ֥ה ׀ אֶחָֽד׃
Shema, Yisrael. Adonai Eloheinu. Adonai Echad.
Listen, Israel. Adonai is our God. Adonai is one.

And these six words open up a universe.

They are the words we whisper as we kiss our children and tuck them in at night. They are the words we proclaim when we stand on the bima and hold our sacred scroll. They are the words that resonate when we sing together with eyes closed and ears open. They are the words that bring comfort as we face our fears.And, they are often our final words, shared with shallow breaths and teary eyes as we say our last goodbyes.

Words strong enough to lift us up.
Words gentle enough to lay us down.

A lifetime in six short words.

Many of us read another love letter yesterday. Another last goodbye, as the New York Times posthumously published final words to us, the American people, from Civil Rights hero, Representative John Lewis.

Like Moses, he leaves us more than six words. But within his message, we find our call.

Referencing Dr. Martin Luther King, Lewis compelled us:
Stand up, Speak Up, Speak out.
In acknowledging our hardest tasks, Lewis reminded us:
History offers solutions to our challenges.
Looking forward, Lewis challenged us:
Your turn to let freedom ring.
And with confidence, he assured us:
Everlasting love will be our guide.

And in remembering John Lewis, his sometimes challenger, always colleague, and dear friend: former president George W. Bush eulogized:
Do Justice, Love Mercy, [and] Walk Humbly [with our God](Micah 6:8).
(Ok. Six words isn’t always enough.)

It really only takes six words.
Six words to tell a story.
Six words to express a belief.
Six words to start a movement.
Six words to say good bye.

So, what words will you choose?

Shema: the six-word story of us.
Shema: the watchword of our faith.

Shema: reminds us we are one.
שְׁמַ֖ע יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ יְהוָ֥ה ׀ אֶחָֽד׃
Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad

These six words bring us closer.
These six words bind us together.

Unlocking the mystery of our connection,
reminding us of our shared past
holding a vision for our tomorrow.

Go back to that paper you grabbed at the beginning.
What did you write?

Scroll down and leave a comment.

Share with us:

The six short words that will
unlock the universe that is you.