Waxing and Waning – Witness

Tanach, our sacred scriptures, contains orthographic peculiarities that offer windows into the text. In particular, the majuscules and minuscules, letters that are written consistently larger or smaller in Hebrew biblical manuscripts, preserve a Masoretic tradition rich with possibilities. Though there is no conclusive theory explaining why these letters are written this way, there is at least one midrash associated with each occasion when these letters occur in this unusual manner. The Shema, some call it the watchword of our faith, happens to be one of the best known examples of this hermeneutical technique. Many first learn the Shema as part of the Jewish liturgy. However, it’s origin is Deuteronomy 6:4.


Notice that the ayin of the first word and the dalet of the last word are written larger that the rest of the other letters. The midrash associated with these majescules teaches us that when we put these two letters together it spells the word ayd, which means witness. In sanctifying the divine name, Jews are called to be witnesses.

But what does it mean to be a witness? Witnesses have two primary tasks: to observe and to give truthful testimony.   At Slifka Center, we are blessed with the opportunity to be witnesses in ways that may be more difficult elsewhere. In a world that has become increasingly anti-Semitic and Islamaphobic, here we witness Jews and Muslims gathering together to eat, pray, talk and learn. On the Friday of the presidential inauguration, we invited the Muslim Student Association and the Yale Muslim community to join us for Shabbat dinner. The following Friday afternoon, we were their guests at Juma’ah services in Dwight Hall followed by a luncheon they hosted. I bear witness to this truth.

In a world that too often vilifies Israel, here we witness Ahavat Israel, love of Israel. Sending Jewish and non-Jewish students to Israel throughout the year for immersive experiences, holding educational fellowships and speaker events, hosting informal gatherings where students have the opportunity to explore their relationship with Israel are all ways that we keep that flame burning. I bear witness to this truth.

In a world where Jews are at each others’ throats with language that belies our common heritage and shared destiny, here we sit together and engage in discourse – sometimes agreeing, sometimes disagreeing on a range of topics. However, we are deeply committed to mutual respect, civility and intellectual rigor –  the hallmark of Judaism and of Yale. I bear witness to this truth.

Ironically, reciting the Shema during worship is usually done while covering or closing one’s eyes. Perhaps we best witness the truth when we still the outside distractions for a moment and look deep within. In the days ahead, we will all have chances to bear witness, speak truth and even practice courage.  May these modest testimonies from our campus inspire you and give you faith for the journey ahead.

 Warm regards,
Executive Director and Senior Jewish Chaplain