Parsha Mitzvot-Vaetchanan-Mitzvah 419-Concept 76-Shema-Commentary
Blessings before the Shema: The recitation of the Shema is preceded by a two blessings, the first of which is quite long, so much so that people assume it is more than one blessing. The first blessing—which begins “Creator of Light”— speaks of the structure of the universe. The second—which begins “With unbounded love You have loved us” and ends Blessed are You, Lord, Who chooses His people Israel with love”—speaks of God’s love for us.
Having reminded ourselves how much God loves us, we then recite the quintessential statement of Judaism: Shema Israel, HaShem Elokeinu, HaShem Echad, “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” After this, we immediately declare our obligation to return God’s love. This declaration, which consists of the first of three paragraphs, makes up the rest of the Shema.
The obligation to return God’s love does not imply that it is up to us to create a relationship with God. The relationship already exists whether we want it or not. However, it is up to us to decide if we will develop that relationship by reciprocating God’s love, or we if will to turn away from it.
The Shema sets forth what we need to do to develop that relationship, how we can expect our lives to improve as a result, and what is the price that we must pay for all the benefits we derive from it.
How it works is illustrated by a story of the father and his two daughters. One daughter was very ugly and the other was a shrew, so the father could not marry them off until he found two brothers—one of whom was blind, and the other was deaf. The blind brother married the ugly woman, and the deaf brother married the shrew. They were so happy. The shrew could yell all she wanted, and the deaf brother never got upset with her raising her voice. The ugly sister didn’t have to take care of herself; the blind brother loved her anyway. As far as he was concerned, she was beautiful.
Both couples were married many years when a world-famous surgeon came to town and said that he could make their lives better. The brothers thought, “Who wouldn’t want to see? Who wouldn’t want to hear.” So they both underwent surgery. Thank God, medically everything went well, but psychologically it was a disaster. When the formerly blind brother took off his bandages and saw his ugly wife, he screamed in horror. When the formerly deaf brother took off his bandages, he began to get headaches and earaches from his wife’s yelling and nagging.
And so the brothers refused to pay the doctor. They said to him, “You said our lives would be improved, but instead, our lives are ruined! We’re not going to pay you for the surgery!” The doctor argued that he helped them see and hear, and he should be paid. In order to settle the dispute, they went to see a rabbi. After hearing all sides, the rabbi asked the doctor, “Did you say you would make their lives better?” The doctor admitted that he had made that claim. “Are their lives better?” Again, the doctor had to admit that they didn’t think so. So the rabbi declared, “I want you to make him blind again and him deaf again.”
When they heard his verdict, the brothers protested—they did not want to be blind and deaf again. “In that case,” said the rabbi, “pay the bill!”
God says the same thing to us: “If you don’t like the pleasures I give you, I’ll take them away! Is that what you want? No? If not, then you have to pay the price.”
Of course, there is going to be a price to our relationship with God and this price is spelled out in the Shema. But God is also saying here, “I want you.” And this is also spelled out—in the blessings before the Shema. From this we see the structure of building a solid, healthy relationship with the Creator of the world.
We can’t see God; we can’t touch Him. Yet, He keeps reaching out to us, wanting a relationship with us. The way we experience this relationship is through the commandments of the Torah, and this is the theme of the Shema.
Reciting the Shema
Before we recite the Shema, we should be aware that there are several different approaches:
· We can recite it as individuals
· We can recite it as part of the nation of Israel
· We can recite it as an accumulated voice of the generations, answering Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel, on his deathbed
What does this mean?
A famous Midrash tells us that Jacob, when he was on his deathbed, planned to reveal to his children how history would develop until the end of days. But just before he could give away the secrets, his mind went blank and he realized that his gift of prophecy had abandoned him. He assumed that the reason why that happened was because one of his children was undeserving to hear it. After all, Abraham had Ishmael, and Isaac had Esau; it was even more likely, with Jacob having twelve sons, that one of them was not deserving. So his sons said to him, Shema Yisrael, meaning, “Listen Israel, all of us accept the Lord as our God, the Lord is One. “When Jacob heard that he realized there wasn’t any child who was undeserving. His response was, Baruch shem kavod malchuto l’olam va’ed, meaning. “Now I know that the name of His kingship will last forever.” Because if the Jewish people are whole—with all the children together expressing Shema Yisrael HaShem Elokeinu, HaShem echad—then it will last forever.
When we say Shema Yisrael, we are not just saying it as individuals. All of us throughout history are telling Jacob, Shema Yisrael, “Listen Israel…” And God’s response is, “Baruch shem kavod malchuto l’olam va’ed, “Then My name will continue to expand forever.” That is what the word baruch means—God’s name will continue to grow and develop. And the presence of God, which is His honor (kavod) will also continue to expand in the world.
This voice continues to cry out through the generations.
There are times when we can say the Shema like that. But not always. There are times when we are praying when we don’t really feel that we are speaking as an accumulated voice of all the generations since the sons of Jacob. And then we may feel we are actually talking to ourselves without hearing what we are saying.
The Midrash says we should hear with our ears. That seems obvious—we don’t hear with our eyes! But the truth is that most of us don’t hear with our ears. We hear with our brains and our emotions.
But saying the Shema, we have to more than hear—we have to listen. And that’s why we have to say the words,and not just read them. We have to listen to what we are saying. So that the words themselves will have their effect on us—so that we feel that Shema Yisrael is talking to us as individuals.
Still another way to address the Jewish people as nation. After we are making this declaration in the plural: Hashem Elokeinu, “the Lord is our God.”
The components of the Shema
As noted above, the Shema is composed of one sentence—the quintessential statement of Judaism: Shema Israel, HaShem Elokeinu, HaShem Echad (“Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One”)—followed by a whispered declaration: Baruch shem kavod malchuto l’olam vaed (“Blessed is the Name of His glorious kingdom for all eternity.”)
At this point, we concentrate on accepting God’s sovereignty by loving Him. This is clear from the text that we recite, which is drawn from different sources in the Torah:
· The first paragraph (from Deuteronomy 6:5-9) says that we should love God. In the preceding blessings, we saw how much God loves us, so now God says to us, “I want it to be a two-way relationship. I want you to love me.”
· The second paragraph (from Deuteronomy 11:13-21) speaks about the obligations in our relationship with God. In order for it to be a meaningful relationship that develops and lasts, there has to be a sense of obligation. There are obligations that we have to God, that God has to us as well. It’s just like in a marriage. The husband fulfills his duties and so does the wife.
· The third paragraph (from Numbers 15:37-41) speaks about the reliability and stability of the relationship.
These three paragraphs are followed by a blessing declaring God to be “true and certain, established, enduring, fair, faithful, beloved, cherished, delightful, present, awesome, powerful, correct, accepted, good, beautiful …”
In a human marriage, loving the other person is complicated. Love makes us to the vulnerable to hurt, and people generally don’t like to feel vulnerable. We don’t want to love someone if we are not sure that this person will love us in return. And even if we are sure of the other’s love, we may still hesitate because we cannot be certain how long this love will last. We all have—in one way or another—a problem with trusting others.
That is why the reading of the three paragraphs of the Shema is followed by a blessing which states that God is reliable, consistent and faithful—completely worthy of our love. (It begins, “the Lord, your God, is true” and ends, “Who redeems Israel.”)
In summary, in the Shema God states: “I love you, I want you to love Me back. And I want you to know that there are obligations here, just like in any relationship. You have obligations, and I have obligations. And I am reliable. Tremendously reliable. I am proven to be reliable.”
Reliability in a relationship means that each side is sure the other will come through.
A man once came into my office, wanting advice how to reveal something devastating to his wife. He expected—and I expected—that when she heard what he had done, she would divorce him. And she took it very hard, but she asked for time to work it out alone. After she had time to think about it, and after she talked it over with me, she decided that she had made a commitment to the marriage. She was a very strong woman. She told her husband that she loved him, that they would get though this, and that their marriage would be healed. The look on his face, seeing that there was stability in the relationship, and that it was reliable, was one of incredible love—it was the look you see between a chattan and kallah.
If we have experienced the reliability of another in stressful circumstances, we can use these experiences to develop a relationship with God. If you haven’t, or we we’ve experienced the opposite, we can say to God: “I know what it means to be in a relationship and feel that someone hasn’t been reliable. What I need from You is this sense of reliability. I need to feel loved.”
So, either way—whether our experiences have been positive or negative—they can lead us to create a connection to God. And we can attach these experiences to this prayer.
The Shema is where we work on our relationship with God. This means hard work, just like the work on any other relationship—with our spouse or children.
In any relationship, we commit to some extent and have doubts to some extent. It’s not possible that some doubt does not creep in. That’s because there are so many different parts to our personalities and to the personalities of our spouses—and ours and theirs don’t always correspond. When they don’t, one partner may feel as though he or she is not connecting, and that sense of separateness is frightening.
What is important to know is that with God, there is no such thing. God is not made up of one part that says one thing, and another part that says something else. We human beings are conflicted when making a decision, but God is not. God is echad—God is one. God is whole. Whatever God is, He is with His entire being. Therefore, if God tells us He loves us, this means He loves us with His entire being.
HaShem echad also conveys the idea that there is only one God, and there is no other. When we say HaShem echad, God says to us, “I love you, and I want you to love Me in return. I am your intended. There is no other. If there will be problems in our relationship, you’ll work them out. But there is only one God. You have no alternative.” That’s HaShem echad.
Also, Hashem echad means something frightening. It means that God is the only being that actually exists. Nothing else exists. God creates and recreates us at every moment, and our continued existence is assured only because God wills it. Our existence is dependent on what God decrees, and it can stop at any moment. God’s existence cannot stop. So the only thing that really exists is God. Therefore, when we connect with God, we connect to the whole source our being.
We will now examine some of the specific phrases that make up the declarations of the Shema:
· You shall love God with all your hearts, and with all your soul, and all your might/resources.
This is a commandment to love God, but how can love be commanded? If someone holds a hold a gun to your head and says, “Love me!” and you respond, “I love you!” that probably doesn’t mean too much. So this cannot be what this commandment implies.
Rather, this commandment tells us to work at loving God, and it is immediately followed by instructions how to do so: “Let these matters that I command you today be upon your heart…” We learn to love God by building an environment of love—by speaking, learning, and teaching the words of God (Torah) while sitting at home, while traveling, etc. “And bind them up as a sign …” In other words, show how the words of God (Torah) are part and parcel of you as a human being—show how they encompass every part of your life by inscribing them on your gates and on your doorways.
God’s words teach us how to learn about God, so that we can develop a love for God. This takes a lot of hard work. It involves continuously learning more and more about Him, and identifying traits that belong to Him which we would like to have ourselves.
· …with all your hearts…
Note that we are commanded to love God with our “hearts” (plural). This means to love God with both our evil inclination and our good inclination. We have to turn our evil inclination around so that we love God with our evil inclination, too. The best explanation I’ve ever heard is from my uncle, Rabbi Noah Weinberg. He says that what we want more than anything else in the innermost parts of our being—more than we want the good things, and more than we want the bad things—is to have a good relationship with God.
In a fascinating story illustrating this point, the Midrash relates that when Jacob went in to his father disguised as Esau, Isaac was suspicious, because Jacob’s voice didn’t sound like Esau. Isaac said, “The voice is Jacob, but the hands are Esau.” In order to allay his suspicions, Isaac pulled Jacob close and smelled his clothes. The Midrash says that when he did so, he smelled Yosef Meshita, and he decided it was safe to give the blessing.
Who was Yosef Meshita?
He was a Jew who lived at the time of the Roman destruction of the Temple. When the Romans had conquered Jerusalem, they entered the Temple in order to ransack it, but they were afraid of the power of the God of Israel. Therefore, they decided to send in a Jew to take some sacred objects out of the Holy of Holies, and if he survived, they would be emboldened to go in themselves. However, no Jew was willing to volunteer to plunder the Temple, even though the Romans promised he could keep whatever valuables he took out. Then one man stepped forward—Yosef Meshita.
Brazenly, he went into the Holy of Holies and came out still alive carrying the golden menorah. Though he proved to the Romans that it was safe to go in without being struck down dead by God, they were taken aback by his chutzpah—he took the largest and most valuable object which they had intended to present to Caesar. “How could you do that?” they asked him, and then they told him to go back in and take something smaller. But he refused. He even refused when they offered him fifty percent of the taxes collected in Jerusalem that year. So they tortured him.
As he was being tortured, he screamed in agony and died. At that moment, a heavenly voice was heard, “Do not think Yosef Meshita screamed in physical agony. He cried because when the Romans asked him, ‘How could you do that?’ he realized how low he had fallen. He cried because he had repented. His agony was over what he had done to himself.”
So the Midrash says that Isaac gave the blessing of the first born to Jacob, who came there to deceive him, because on Jacob he smelled Yosef Meshita—the lowest of sinners who, in the recesses of his heart, had the deepest love of God.
This is the essence of b’chol levavecha, “with all your hearts.”
Even when we are going through our struggles and terrible times, even when we are driven by passions prohibited by the Torah, what we want more than anything else is a relationship with the Almighty God. Between the good drives and the destructive drives, what we want more than anything else is a connection with the Divine.
· …with all your soul…
This means with your whole life. The only reason you are living is because God has given you life.
· …and with all your might/possessions…
Contrary to common opinion, this doesn’t mean that you have to give tzeddaka. Of course, you do. But the proscription to do so does not originate from this passage. This passage is saying that because you know that all your possessions come from God, you want to share what you’ve been given with others.
Imagine for a moment that someone gave you a pen. Not just any pen but the very pen which Menachem Begin signed the Camp David Accords. Imagine that Menachem Begin himself gave it to you. It would be terribly meaningful to you. So if the Almighty God gives you something, shouldn’t that make you more appreciative of it? And wouldn’t it make it more important to you? Who gave you your body? Who gave you everything that you have? All you have—all your possessions—come from God. And that is what it means that you should love God with all your might. With everything. Not just your monetary possessions—with everything that comes from God.
· Let these matters that I command you today be upon your heart.
That is, “upon your heart as if I commanded them to you this very day at Mt. Sinai.”
This is a key idea in Judaism—every day should be “as if” the Torah was just given today.
Do you realize how much of Judaism is “as if”? We pray towards Jerusalem “as if” the Temple was still standing. We shake the lulav each of the seven days of Sukkot “as if” we were in the Temple. It is that connection we have to God that allows us to live “as if.” Because we connect to something that is beyond this physical reality.
· Teach them thoroughly to your children and speak of them while you sit in your home, while you walk on the way, when you retire, and when you arise.
You have to create an environment for Torah study in every aspect of your life. When you are traveling means as you are traveling on your spiritual journey—as you are growing. Torah has to be a part of your path of growth. It has to be foremost on your mind—when you go to sleep and when you wake up.
· Bind them as a sign on your hand, and let them be tefillin between your eyes.
Tefflin is your wedding ring. When you wrap the tefillin around our hands, you say: “I will betroth you to Me forever, and I will betroth you to Me with righteousness, justice, kindness, and mercy. I will betroth you to Me with fidelity, and you shall know God.” (Hoshea 2:21-22)
· And write them on the door-posts of your house and upon your gates.
This, too, is to make certain that your home is a place of Torah—a Jewish home, rather than just a place where you live.