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Earth Etude for Elul 2: Where Heaven Is Here…

by Andy Oram

What is heaven? How does one earn the right to enter heaven? I speculated on these questions by examining the Hebrew word for heaven, which is “shama’im” (שָׁמַיִם). The word is somewhat odd because it’s plural, as indicated by the “im” (ים) ending. Here is my parsing of the word.

If “shama’im” (שָׁמַיִם) is plural, what’s the singular? Take off the plural ending, and the singular appears to be simply “sham” (שָׁמ), which is Hebrew for “there.” Basically, heaven is just multiple “theres.”

Each of us has a “there” we would like to reach–an ideal self that we are trying to achieve. And each person has a different “there,” because we each have different aspirations and strengths.

I think the Hebrew word is telling us that you can’t get into heaven by achieving just your own goals. You may get “there” yourself, but it stands alone. But by helping other people achieve their goals in life, you can reach multiple “theres.”

We all need to reach the ecological “there” of 350 parts per million maximum of carbon to create a “shama’im” (the sky) that can sustain our lives.

A Chasidic midrash explains why Moses took a half-shekel from each Israelite (Exodus 30:13) in order to do a census, when a whole shekel would be easier to collect. According to the midrash, the half-shekel indicated that no Israelite could feel whole by themselves; they needed all the other Israelites.

If all of us could help each other achieve our “theres,” maybe we’d be in heaven.

Fussy grammatical notes:

My etymology of “shama’im” (שָׁמַיִם) is spurious, but it’s still a legitimate basis for a commentary. The true origin of the word is obscure, but it is shared by most Middle Eastern languages, as described in a Wiktionary entry in Hebrew. Wiktionary suggests that the true root is שמה, not שם. The singular is never used, whatever it may be. The root might be derived from “height” or “big.”

Furthermore, if one were to accept “shama’im” as a normal Hebrew word, the second “a” in the usual vocalization represents a pair, not a normal plural.  Still, this kind of plural can be used for any collection of more than one.

Andy Oram is a writer and editor in the computer field. His editorial projects have ranged from a legal guide covering intellectual property to a graphic novel about teenage hackers. Print publications where his writings have appeared include The Economist, the Journal of Information Technology & Politics, and Vanguardia Dossier. He has lived in the Boston, Massachusetts area for more than 30 years. He self-published a memoir, “Backtraces: Three Decades of Computing, Communities, and Critiques”, and his poems have been published in Ají, Arlington Literary Journal, Conclave, Genre: Urban Arts, Heron Clan, Offcourse, Panoply, Soul-Lit, and Speckled Trout Review.

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