In this week’s Torah portion, we finish listening to Moshe Rabbeinu’s first speech prior to his departure from the nation, and begin to listen to his second speech. In the middle of this speech, we read a very famous section – one that every believing Jew says twice a day in prayer, in the morning and in the evening.
Furthermore, in light of the most basic message inherent in this passage, it became the eternal symbol of the Jewish nation throughout the generations – “Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad” – “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our G-d; the Lord is one.”
What is it about these words that turned them into the symbol of Jewish faith and spirit? Let us examine the entire passage and try to see how these ancient words that left Moshe Rabbeinu’s lips thousands of years ago still touch our lives today.
The entire section can be divided into two parts. The first part is the message and the second contains the “instructions,” what we are meant to do with this message.
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our G-d; the Lord is one.
“And you shall love the Lord, your G-d, with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your means.”
That is the first part. It contains the important message.
In the second part we read what we are supposed to do with the entire passage.
“And these words, which I command you this day, shall be upon your heart.
“And you shall teach them to your sons and speak of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk on the way, and when you lie down and when you rise up.
“And you shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for ornaments between your eyes.
“And you shall inscribe them upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates.” (Deuteronomy 6: 4-9) Based on the second part of the passage, which includes directions on what we are meant to do with the whole thing, we can learn how important the message is. We are commanded, first of all, to take this message to heart. How should we do this? Through a series of actions: teach the message to our children (“And you shall teach them to your sons”), speaking and dealing with it everywhere (“when you sit in your house, and when you walk on the way”), at all times (“when you lie down and when you rise up”), tying it onto the hand (“And you shall bind them for a sign upon your hand”) and head (“and they shall be for ornaments between your eyes”), and writing it in a permanent mezuza placed at the entrances of our homes (“And you shall inscribe them upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates”).
If we pay attention, we are actually always surrounded by the “Shema Yisrael.” We say it at least twice a day, we put on tefillin that contain the Shema, and at the entrance to our homes there is a mezuza with the Shema written inside. The reason for this is that the message relayed here is so important that we have to remind ourselves of it again and again, every day, everywhere, and at all times.
What is this message that the Torah seeks to convey to us with these words? And how will it change our lives? Man lives in the world and deals with a changing reality as he consistently looks to the future. Truthfully, no one can ever really have complete confidence in what the future holds. This creates a paradoxical situation in everyone’s life. On the one hand, it is important to us to know what awaits us in the future and plan for it. On the other hand, we have no real way of predicting the future. This reality is not always sensed, but when a person reaches an intersection in his life when he has to make a decision of some kind, then he feels his inability and helplessness in anything pertaining to the future.
Therefore, what can we trust? How can we remain calm? This is where faith comes in. A person who lives with the sense that despite the lack of knowledge, he is sure he lives in a world run by G-d who wants only the best for us can be calm even when the future is obscure, even when he does not know what tomorrow will bring.
When we recite “The Lord is our G-d; the Lord is one,” we declare that He who is our G-d, has the power to act, is devoid of needs and interests, because He is “one.” Whoever has no interests, his actions are only for the benefit of the other. He is better guided than I am and manages the world with limitless vision.
This is the source of the serenity and confidence that faith gives people.
The obvious reaction is the love of man for G-d. Whoever feels his life is changing and becoming calmer because of his faith in G-d’s goodness develops a sense of gratitude and love for He who provides him with this good life, and he responds with love as the verse states, “with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your means.”
This is the Jewish message – faith in the Creator of the Universe who continues to manage it for benefit of the world. It might be said that this is the basis of all of Judaism, and if so, it is clear why the Shema has become a symbol of Judaism, of the Jewish nation and of every Jew throughout time.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.
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