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Rabbi Kalmar's Sermon - Parshat Chayei Sarah

"The Crazy Shema Guy and Why It’s So Important to Say Shema Before 9:10am"

When I went to YU, we used to get to there early and wait for the Rosh Yeshiva to enter the room to start our Gemara shiur.   Every few months this fellow would show up, unbidden, a few minutes before the shiur and share with us his source sheet and enthusiasm about saying the Shema.  He was sort of a comical fellow and would launch into his shpiel about the importance of saying Shema and what we should be thinking about and the details of the mitzvah.   We thought of him as the “Crazy Shema Guy” – here we were, Yeshiva students sitting in Rav Herschel Schachter’s shiur waiting to hear a lecture on the intricacies of the Talmud from one of the top scholars in the world and this fellow was telling us stuff we learned in elementary school.  It would be the equivalent of an advanced differential analysis class at MIT waiting for a world renowned professor to start the lecture and somebody is writing multiplication tables on the chalkboard.   Often in his gusto and excitement he would be asking us questions and humming and jumping around the room – seemingly oblivious to the smirks on all the guys faces – and Rav Schachter would walk in and be surprised to find somebody at the front of his classroom leading the lecture!  Rav Schachter would always have a smile on his face and encourage the fellow to finish what he was saying, although he would usually flee the room, apologizing to Rav Schachter as he prepared to find the next shiur room to continue his mad Shema shpiel.

In this week’s Parsha we are confronted with the death of Sarah.  Rav Yitzchak Karo, uncle of Rav Yosef Karo, author of the Shulchan aruch, says in his Toldos Yitchak that the reason why the death of Sarah is placed between the mentioning of Rivkah’s birth and Yitzchak’s marriage is to tell us that thinking of death puts life in its proper perspective.  Hence we think of the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash at the most joyous moment at the Chuppah.  There is a connection between thinking of death and the Shema.  Famously – the Shema is what is supposed to be on one’s lips when they pass from this world.  Also, Rabbi Zev Leff points out, that he Talmud (Brachos 5a) says that if one is confronted by sin there are things that one should do – if trying to rouse one’s yetzer tov (good inclination) or learning torah fails,  the third approach is to say the shema – if that doesn’t work – one should think of the day of death.  Here again – we have the Shema right next to the day of death.  The Shema – Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Echad – is our statement of trust and faith in God – that we submit ourselves to his will.

This mitzvah of saying Shema – once in the morning and once in the evening is actually a biblical commandment.  While the rest of prayer is essentially a rabbinic enactment.  The saying of Shema – on time(!) is a biblical requirement.  When I was in a class with semicha students with another YU Rosh HaYeshiva – Rabbi Mordechai Willig, I remember him telling us – that when being a rabbi – there are many things you should give in on – there are many ways you can be lenient – but he said that a rabbi should make sure that davening on Shabbos morning should start early so that we make sure to say Kerias Shema on time – because it is a biblical commandment!  When is on time?  So the Mishna says – when the princes wake up – three hours into the day.  The later rabbis debated when the three hours are to be counted from and so we have two opinions – that of the Magen Avraham (tomorrow in Milwaukee at 8:34) and the Vilna Gaon (9:10).  I have not always succeeded in getting davening to be early on Shabbat morning – tomorrow we start at 9:00 am.  But I can impress upon you the importance of saying the Shema on time – a biblical commandment!  So you can say it before you come to shul and repeat it again with the blessings when you are at shul.  And if you are davening at home during this period – you should certainly make sure to say it when you get up (before three hours into the day!) on time.  Please, Please make sure to say the Shema on time.

You might say to me – “Come on rabbi, we are dealing with the pandemic, and crazy rising numbers here is Wisconsin and election fallout and Corona burnout and all I’m stressing about and you want me to worry about saying the Shema on time! Give me a break!”

And I would say to you that exactly because of the pandemic and all the stress that we have that we need the Shema on time more than ever.

Yesterday I learned a new word – Corona-coaster which is defined as :  “the ups and downs of the pandemic.  One day you’re loving your bubble, doing work outs, baking banana bread and going for long walks and the next you’re crying, drinking gin for breakfast and missing people you don’t even like.”

We are all on this coaster – going up and down.   But the Shema helps to get us on an even keel.
The point is – the Shema is a way of saying – There is a God who has a plan for me today. And we need to say that before the day really gets going – and gets away from us.  We have to say to ourselves – Shema Yisrael! – Listen up Jew!  Listen up Self!  God has a plan for you, God gave you another day – get busy doing what you are supposed to be doing.

And the enthusiasm of the Crazy Shema Guy (I’m sorry I don’t remember his name, although if I did I wouldn’t share it with you – would be Lashon HaRa)  – which we sort of laughed off – really is something we should be tapping into.  

The first pasuk in the Parsha tells us Sarah lived 127 years and then says שני חיי שרה - the years of Sarah’s life.  Rashi there says – that they were all equally good.  Sarah experienced many ups and downs, years of infertility, being captured by Paroh and Avimelech, famine, her husband going to war and having to bring her maidservant to her husband as a new wife and her son being taken to be offered as a sacrifice.  How can Rashi say that all her days were good!    I believe the point is that Sarah lived all her days with a Shema type of existence and with a day of death type of existence.  If you know that there is a creator and that your time on this earth is limited – then every day matters. Every day counts!  Before the day gets away from you, you must get up and declare that God is one, that there is a reason for living, that God has a plan for me today!  And with that in mind, saying the Shema now is not so crazy at all.  In fact, it is an antidote to the Corona-coaster sickness.  So let’s get up every day and say Shema on time – because doing so puts the day in the proper perspective.  It allows us to declare: God is there! And God has a mission for me today.

Mon, March 8 2021 24 Adar 5781