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Parsha Mitzvot-Vetchanan-Mitzvah 419-Concept 76-Shema I

Transcribed by Daniel Goldman: Now we begin the sh’ma.  The first sentence of the paragraph is that we should love God.  Now that you know that God loves us, God says to us, “I want it to be a two way relationship. I want you to love Me. It’s not something that just comes, it’s something that you have to work on.  Then we said that the second paragraph of sh’ma speaks about obligation. 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, to work on this relationship, and God has obligations.  “You’ll do your obligations, and I will do mine.”  It’s just like in a marriage.  The husband does his obligations, and the wife does hers.  That’s the second paragraph in sh’ma.


This relationship literally becomes part of our being.  That is what the third paragraph is about.  Everyone has a big problem in forming relationships.  Everybody.  People have it to different degrees.  And that is the sense of reliability.  Before you are going to give yourself over to someone, and before you are going to love someone, or make him or herself vulnerable to another, there has to be a sense of reliability.  That is always the blessing immediately following the sh’ma.

Certain, Established, Enduring, Fair, Faithful, Beloved, Cherished, Delightful, Present, Awesome, Powerful, Correct, Accepted, Good, Beautiful is this affirmation…

This whole blessing is about God’s reliability.   So God says to us, “I love you, I want you to love Me back. And I want you to know that there are obligations, just like there are in any relationship.  You have obligations, and I have obligations.  And I am reliable.  Tremendously reliable.  I am proven.”  Then, we are ready for the Shemoneh Esreh, because we have spoken about our relationship with God.

If a person has experienced reliability in a relationship, it’s the knowledge that a person will come through for you.  Someone once came into the office who had to reveal something devastating to his wife. He expected, and I expected that when she would hear this, she would divorce him.  He had done some really bad things.  She took it very hard, but she asked for time to work it out alone.  She came and talked.  She decided that she made a commitment.  She wanted him to know that she loved him, that they would get though this, and it would be healed.  She was a very strong woman.  Not someone who would take abuse, or anything.  The look on his face…he knew it would be hard.  If she was angry, she would let him know.  The look on his face, seeing that there was stability in the relationship, and that it was reliable, was incredible love.  Like the look you see between a chatan and kallah.

This is the kind of sense of reliability that one can use as an experience to develop a relationship with God.   “I know what it is to be loved, and I know what it means to love back and to have obligations.  Now that is what I have to work on.”  And to know the experience of what it is to keep her obligations.  “I’ve experienced this in life, and if so, I want to translate it into my service of You.” If you have experienced it, then that’s how you do it.  If you haven’t experienced it, or if you’ve been hurt, you say, “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 this feeling to be loved.  Then you say the blessing, and go through the sh’ma. You are not using the prayer to create this connection to God.  But again, you are using this experience, positive or negative one…we are all touched by reliability, loving someone, and the sense of being loved by another.  Here you are attaching it to your prayer to use it.  That is the general overview we gave of the blessings before and after sh’ma.

Last week, we were trying to elicit all the things that come up in relationships to see how they are addressed in this section of davening. This is where we work on the relationship.  Shemoneh Esreh is where we use the relationship.  This is the hard work, just like in our own relationships, that we do with our spouses, or with our intended spouses, or with our children.  It’s rare that you go into a relationship, and there is no doubt.  And it’s rare that you go into a relationship, and you’ve already committed yourself to the relationship, and there is no doubt gnawing at you long afterwards. (“Was it the right choice?”)

There are two verses in Tanach.  One is, matza isha, matza tov – He who has found a woman, has found good.  There is another verse, motza ani et ha’isha mar mi’mavet – I find the woman to be more bitter than death.  When the chatan and kallah during the time of the Gemara would wed in Jerusalem, and stand under the chuppah, before all the assembled guests, caterer, and the florist, they would ask him, matza or motza? Which verse is it? But why are they asking this? – Look at the difference in tenses. One verse is matza – He who has found, the other is matza – I find.  A person who says “I have found,” means that “this is it, and I will work on this,” and has found good.  But a person who says, “I find,” means that he is always ‘finding.’  (“Did I marry the right person?”  “Maybe I should have married so-and-so.  She would have been better in this area.”  “That so-and-so, she is so much better looking.”  “She wouldn’t have done that. She was stronger.”)  All the things we do in relationships.  Constantly looking and asking, “Did I really find the right person?”  That experience is going to be more bitter than death.

But we all go through that in a relationship. I know that everyone here has a perfect relationship. But we all go through that, at one point, or another.  It’s not possible that some doubt does not creep in.  That’s because there are so many different parts in our personalities.  The husband has many parts, the wife has many parts.  And the two don’t always correspond.  When they don’t, one party may feel as though they are missing something.  That sense of bifurcation is frightening.  What is important to know is that with God, there is no such thing.  There’s no sense of possibly being split apart.  It’s not that God is made up of one part that says one thing, and another part that says something else.  We human beings are torn apart when making a decision.  God is not. God is echad.

So what is sh’ma yisrael Hashem elokeinu, Hashem echad doing in the middle of this conversation of love?  God is echad means that God is whole. God is not split into many parts.   This is called Divine Simplicity.  Whatever God is, He is with His entire being.  There are no different parts to Him.  Therefore, if God says, “I love you,” we’re loved with His entire being.

Hashem echad also means that there is only one God, and there is no other.  That is expected of us, too.  We have to stop fighting.  When we are developing this relationship with God, there is a difference between saying, “I am having problems with God right now,” and saying “Maybe this is the wrong God.”  There’s a big difference.  When we say Hashem echad, God says to us, “I love you, and I want you to love Me back.  And when you love Me back, you have to understand that I am your intended.  There is no other.  If there will be problems in the relationship, you’ll work them out.  But there is only one. There is no alternative.”  That’s Hashem Echad.

Also, it means something frightening.  Hashem echad means that God is the only being that actually exists.  Nothing else exists. By virtue of the fact that God creates and recreates us at every moment, and that our continued existance is only because God wills it, means that only God truly exists.  Our existance is dependent on what God decrees, and can stop at any moment.  God’s existance cannot stop.  So the only thing that really exists is God.  Therefore, when God asks us to love Him, we are connecting to the whole source our being, of life.

Who are we talking to when we say sh’ma yisrael? I’m sure you know the famous Midrash on the sh’maYa’akov was on his deathbed, and he was about to reveal to his children when the end of days would be, meaning how history would develop.  But right before he could give away the secrets, his mind blanked out.  He assumed that the reason why that happened was because one of his children was undeserving to hear it.  After all, Abraham had Ishmael.  Isaac had Esau.  It was even more likely, with Jacob having twelve children that one of them was not deserving.  So his children said to him, Sh’ma Yisrael – Listen Israel, Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Echad – All of us accept God, as our Lord, God is One.  When Jacob heard that he realized there wasn’t any child who was undeserving.  His response was, “Phew! Baruch shem kavod malchuto l’olam va’ed – Now I know that the Name of His Kingship will last forever.”  Because if the Jewish people are whole, where all the children together are expressing sh’ma yisrael Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem echad, then I know that it will last forever.

When we say sh’ma yisrael, we are not just saying it as individuals, it’s our way of saying that all of us throughout history are yelling to Jacob, sh’ma yisrael – Listen Israel…”  And God’s response is, “Wow! Baruch shem kavod malchuto l’olam va’ed – Then My Name will continue to expand.”  That what we said many times the word baruch means.  God’s Name will continue to grow and develop.  And the presence of God, which is kavod, His honor, will continue to expand in the world.  This voice continues to cry through the generations.

Q: Who is the shem?

RSW: Jacob.

Q: The ayin and the dalet are enlarged to spell eid – witness?

RSW: That’s right.  Also, when you say the dalet, you are supposed to have in mind that God is One on all four corners of the earth.   All sorts of different things are here in this verse.  Jews have a way of finding everything in one verse.  I saw a set of five books last week in which the author found hints to each of the 613 mitvot in the first verse of the Torah.  Wild!

There are times when we can say sh’ma like that. But it doesn’t always work like that.  There are times when we are davening when we don’t really feel that we are speaking as an accumulated voice of all the generations since the sons of Ya’akov. There are two more different ways to say sh’ma yisrael.  One is that we are actually talking to ourselves.  We are talking about the importance of hearing what we are saying.  Most of us don’t hear.  We listen. You know the difference? It’s like the Midrash that says you should hear with your ears.  Of course!  You think I’m going to hear with my eyes?  The answer is that most of us don’t hear with our ears.  We hear with our brains, and our emotions.  Let’s say I am telling you something.  Before I even finish, you start saying to yourself, “Well, I don’t know.  Do I really trust him?  His tie is crooked. Yada- yada.”  You don’t hear with your ears.

First you hear something.  Then after you hear it, then you begin to relate to it. In fact, the first blessing we say in thanks is, Blessed are You, Hashem, King of the Universe, Who gave the heart (or, rooster) understanding to distinguish between day and night. We thank God for hearing.  It’s the whole transmission of truth, from one person to another.  So sh’ma yisrael means I have to listen. And that’s why we have to say the words, and not just read them.  I have to hear what I am saying.  Before examining it, you have to hear it.  And the words themselves will have their effect on you.  So that’s sh’ma yisrael talking to me.

There are other ways to say sh’ma yisrael.  And one is that you are speaking to the Jewish people.  Because we are saying it in a plural voice – Hashem Elokeinu – God is our Lord.

Q: I am thinking of yet another way.  If yisrael is our essence, then there are parts of ourselves that we want to reject, and we find unacceptable.  That we want to throw away.  And just like Ya’akov and his sons, all the parts, all the different aspects of ourselves are also…(good and one?).

RSW: Very good.  You know that yisrael also means ‘one who wrestles with God.’ Sometimes it is important to hear as we are wrestling that even so, Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Echad, and that we haven’t lost it.

Now we get to the first paragraph:

You shall love God with all your hearts, and with all your soul, and all your might (or, all your resources).

First of all, how can love be commanded?  Big problem.  You can’t command someone to love you.  If I hold a gun to your head, and say, “Love me!”  And you said, “Ohh! I love you!” that probably doesn’t mean too much.  So when we speak of love, it means that we have to work at it.  In fact, the rest of the paragraph is how to develop that sense of love for God.

Let these matters that I command you today be upon your heart…

We do this by building an environment, and having the mitzvot on your heart at all times. By teaching them, by speaking the words of Torah when you are sitting in your house, when you are going on the way, when you go to sleep, and when you wake up.  Bind them up as a sign and show how the words of Torah are part and parcel of you as a human being.  Show how they encompass every part of your life by having them on your gates and on your doorways.

That’s the first step.  In Judaism, when we speak of love, we are identifying with that which is positive in the other person.  You know my uncle’s famous saying?  Picture yourself – Here comes the father!  A guy has a kid and he says, “I really love my son.  He’s kind, he’s gentle, and he takes such good care of me and my wife.  He’s a successful businessman, and I’m so proud of him.   And the friend says, “Yeah, but you know that he’s a convicted felon! He’s successful in business because he steals other people’s money.”  The man says, “But I love him anyway.”  The other vignette is a father comes to his friend and says, “You know, I love my son.  He’s a convicted felon.” And his friend says, “Yes, but he’s sweet, he’s kind, etc.”  And the father says, “Yes, but I love him anyway.”  Which one is more reasonable?  The first one is, obviously.  Because when we speak of love, we identify with the positive aspects of the other.

When we speak about love of God, we have to find out about God.  We have to learn about God.  So the commandment to love God is a commandment to develop that love.  We say that a husband is obligated to love his wife.  And a wife is obligated to love her husband.  You can’t obligate someone to love.  But you can obligate one to learn about another person.  That takes a lot of hard work.  To continuously learn more and more about the other person so that you can identify with that which is positive.  That’s how we have a commandment to love every Jew as you love yourself, it means that you identify with that which is positive in the other person that you would like to have for yourself, or that you would like to have in yourself.  That is what that commandment means.   And that is how we develop that sense of love of God.

What does it mean that “You shall love God with all your hearts?”  Most people just have one.  It doesn’t say b’chol libecha, it says b’chol livavecha.  The way it is understood is to love God with both your evil inclination and your good inclination.  Meaning, you have to turn your evil inclination around so that you love God with your evil inclination, too.  The best explanation I’ve ever heard is how my uncle explains it.  It’s to understand that what I want more than anything else in the innermost parts of my being, more than I want the good things, and more than I want the bad things, is that I want to have a good relationship with God.

In fact, there is a beautiful Midrash about this in parshat toladot.  Remember when Jacob stole the blessings?  He wore Esau’s clothes.  Isaac was a little suspicious because the manner in which Jacob was speaking didn’t sound like Esau.  He said “The voice is Jacob, but the hands are Esau.  Something’s up.”  So he decided he wanted to smell him. Esau had the smell of the field.  The Midrash says that Isaac pulled Jacob close, leaned over, and smelled the odor of his clothes, re’ach begadav.  The midrash says that you should read it as  re’ach bogadav, the ‘smell of his deniers.’  Clothes are considered ‘deniers.’  They deny their personality for what they really are.  They hide us.  They don’t allow our full light to shine.  So what does it mean that he ‘smelled his deniers?’

It tells a true story.  The first time the Romans entered the Temple to ransack it, they were nervous.  Everyone knew that this Jewish God had some power, but they didn’t know what it was.  And maybe he wasn’t protecting the Jews now, but he had some power.  No one wanted to go and ransack the Temple, because they didn’t want to be blasted away.  They made an announcement, “Any Jew who will go into the Temple can take whatever he wanted.  He can carry it out, and keep it for himself.”  This way, if the Jew would come out unscathed, what better proof do you need? – It’s safe to go in!

The Romans are afraid of going in.  Can you imagine finding a Jew who is willing to go in? – They found someone.  His name was Yosef Mashiza.  Brazenly, he went into the Holy of Holies, and found the holiest article there during the second Temple, which was the Menorah.  “They said I could take whatever I want.  It’s gold, I need some light in my living room.  I’m having trouble with my halogen lamp.” So he lifted it up, and swung it over his shoulder, and struts out of the Temple.

As he leaves, everyone gasps.  “Are you crazy?  That’s the Menorah!”  Even the Romans said, “You know when we said you could take something out of the Temple, we didn’t mean something like that.  That’s a disgrace to your God!  We can’t let you take that.”  They figured that the only reason he still lived is because he had the holiest object in his hands protecting him.  The Romans wanted him to go back.  “How could you do that? That goes to Caesar, not to a commoner!  Go back!”  Yosef Meshiza said, “No, I am not going back in.”  “Go back, we’ll let you take something else,” they said. “No,” he replied.  “Go back, do us a favor.  We’ll give you money, instead.”  “Nope.”  “Go  back in, and we will give you fifty percent of the taxes we collect in Jerusalem next year.”  “No.” “Listen, be reasonable. We have our ways…go in, takes something, come out, and be happy.  Don’t make trouble.”  Yosef Meshiza said no.  So they threw him down on the ground and tortured him.  As he is being tortured, he screams in agony and died. A heavenly voice echoed, “Do not think Yosef Meshiza screamed in physical agony. He cried because when the Romans asked him, ‘How could you do that?’ he realized they were right, and understood how low he had fallen.  He had done teshuva. His agony was over what he had done to himself.”

So the Midrash says that when it says that what Isaac smelled was Yosef Meshiza.  The lowest Jew, a person who was willing to ransack the Temple, but in the deepest recesses of his heart has that kind of love of God, he decided that you, Jacob will be the one to receive this blessing.

That’s what it means b’chol levavecha.  Even when we are going through our struggles, going through terrible times, even when we are experiencing passions prohibited by the Torah, what a person wants more than anything else is a relationship with the Almighty God.  Between the good drives and the destructive drives, what I want more than anything else is to have a relationship with God.

I think it also means that we should recognize we have destructive drives because we want to relate to God.  Meaning we want power.  We want to achieve.  Who are the leaders in pornography? – Jews!  Who are the biggest crooks? – Jews!  We have tremendous drives.  We know that we are capable of more, but we don’t always know the source of it.  B’chol l’vavecha is to recognize that even those things that drive us towards evil reflect a need to have a relationship with God.

…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.

It doesn’t mean that you have to give tzeddaka.  You do.  But it isn’t what it means here.  That is not loving God with your money.  It’s because you love God, you give your money.  So when it says love God with all your might (or, resources), it means something else.  If someone shows up at your doorway, knocks at the door and says, “Madam, see that limousine out front with the chauffeur?  That is a gift to you from an anonymous admirer.  And do you see that tanker truck behind it? Whenever you need to fill up, it’s there for you.  That too, is a gift from him.”  Wouldn’t you want to know who it was?  You have fingers which can do the most incredible things.  You have eyes…how does it see?  You have ears, you have a nose, mouth – every part of your body.  Don’t you want to know who gave it to you?   It means to love God with everything that you have.  If someone gave you a gift, and you didn’t know where it came from, you’d do anything to find out who sent it.

Another perspective: Let’s say you deal with a thousand people every day.  And I give you computer program that organizes everyone so that they are one touch away on your computer.  Everyday you use it.  And your life gets simpler and simpler.  Every day, what do you say about that gift?  “Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you!”  It’s like when you get a new Cuisenart.  The more you use it… “Oh! I love it!  What a gift!  How can I live without it?”  So the more we use what we have, the more we should love God.  The more grateful we should be.

Another way of looking at this:  If I gave you a junky disposable pen, would it mean much to you?

Q: It would depend how much I needed it.

RSW: Ok, right now?

Q: Not really.

Now let’s say that this pen was the pen with which Menachem Begin signed the Camp David Accords.  Would you appreciate it more?  Because Menachem Begin used it?  Let’s say Menachem Begin gave it to you.  Would it be more 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?  It doesn’t come from Joe Shmoe.  It comes from God.  And that is what it means that you should love God with all your possessions.  Everything.  Not just your monetary possessions.  Everything.  Everything comes from God.

Let these matters that I command you today be upon your heart.

This is a key idea in the Torah.  Every day should be as if the Torah was just given today.  Do you realize how much of Judaism is “as if?”  We daven 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 was only in the Temple that they shook the lulav each of the seven days.   There is a lot in Judaism that is as if.  This is an important concept for the Jewish people.  We don’t live only in this world.  We live “as if.”  And 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 in which Torah is studied.  When you are traveling means as you are growing.  Torah has to be a part of your path of growth.  It has to be the foremost thing 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.

That’s your wedding ring.  Look at what we say when we wrap the tefillin around our hands:

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)

Aren’t those beautiful verses?

And write them on the doorposts 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.

Now before you say the words of the first sentence of sh’ma yisrael you must say, “I have in mind to fulfill my obligation of the positive commandment to accept God as my King.”  Then you say the sh’ma.

Q: You don’t say the words kel melech ne’eman?

RSW: No, you only say those words when you are praying alone.

And before you say the paragraph starting with v’ahavta, you must say, “I have in mind to accept my commandment to love God.”  The commandment to love God is not something you fulfill.  It’s a state of being.  You have to be someone who is a lover of God.  It’s not something you say: “Oh, I love God.  That’s the commandment for today.  Let me go on.”

Before you start the second paragraph, you must say, “I accept all the mitzvot…”  Meaning, all the obligations that come with the relationship, “…and I accept the idea of reward and punishment.”  Reward and punishment means that what I do is meaningful to God.  There  would be no reward or punishment if what I did was not meaningful.  When you know that you are building a relationship, your obligations in the house become that more meaningful.  If you cook dinner and clean the house, and all your efforts are returned with “A good meal.  Now I want to want the ball game, give me a can of beer,” then your spouse didn’t do anything for the relationship.  But if your spouse comes home and says, “Wow! Look at all the work you did!  Did you know I wouldn’t be able to go to work if it were not for you?  I couldn’t take care of the kids were it not for you!  How would I eat would it not for you?  Thank you for all your work!”  It means that  what you are doing makes a difference, and it’s a much different kind of obligation.  That’s why we speak of reward and punishment.  It’s not that God says, “Listen, you want a reward? – Do this.  And don’t do that if you don’t want to be punished!”  It’s God’s way of saying that what we do is meaningful.

The third paragraph speaks of the commandment of tzitzitTzitzit mean ‘light.’ That’s because clothes cover us up.  You can literally cover yourself up with your clothes.  You can be a flamboyant person, but if you don’t want anyone to know, you will dress only in dark conservative suits.  You can hide your personality in your clothes.  You can express it with your clothes.  But even as you do so, you are hiding part of yourself.  Imagine a teenager who dresses in punk, she is expressing her personality, but only part of her personality.  There are so many other issues not being expressed.  You can’t express all parts of your personality at one time.  A fully expressed personality is called a ‘personality of light.’   That’s what tzitzit are.

Q: So is there a word for a fully expressed personality?

RSW: Yes, it’s hilo.  That’s where the word ‘halo’ comes from.

Q: I’ve never heard of that word.

RSW: You say it on Shabbat. (…..)

Q: What is the root word?

RSW: It’s from hallelHallel also means light.  They are all expressions of light.  You know that when God created the world, during the first seven days, there was a perfect light. This meant that whatever you looked at, you understood exactly why God created that thing.  You’d look at a blade of grass and know instantly why it was created.  Or that flower.  But we couldn’t exist like that.  That light was hidden away.  But that is what we are trying to rediscover.  That is why all the laws of tzitzit and Chanukah are together in the Gemara.

Q: So the function of the tzitzit is to draw the light?

RSW: To channel and to express it.  And not to do things that hurt our light.  For instance, there is a verse in this paragraph which says, “…you shall not turn after your hearts and after your eyes after which you stray.” ‘After your hearts’ refers to thoughts of heresy.  ‘After your eyes’ refers to sexual misdeeds.  ‘After which you stray’ refers to idol worship.  (Sotah   ) Those are all things which we have.  It’s recognizing not to turn after what your hearts are telling you.  What are your hearts telling you? – Thoughts of heresy.  And your eyes? – They are telling you to fool around a little.  Your eyes tell you that! Don’t deny it! Except other people!  And idol worship.  We all need physical symbols in our relationship with God.  Who doesn’t love kissing a sefer Torah?

It’s acknowledging that those drives are part of us.  When the verse says “don’t turn after them,” it means ‘what you want will ultimately be expressed, but in a positive way.’  Do you know the story of the woman with the seven beds?  The Gemara in Menachot says that if you are going to sin…Let’s say you you’ve had it.  You are walking down Melrose Boulevard on a hot summer’s day, and you can’t take it anymore.  You’ve got to sin.  You just need to have relations with a woman that you are not allow to have with.  So you are supposed to go far away where nobody knows you, dress up in different clothes so nobody will recognize you, and sin.  But don’t do it where people know you.

So the Gemara tells a story of a guy in yeshiva and he overheard the description of a prostitute who lived far, far away, considered the world’s best prostitute.  Meaning, she delivered for the money.  But, she was also the world’s most expensive.  Her fee was four hundred gold coins for a day and evening’s services.  Just hearing the voluptuous description of this woman and how much pleasure she could give without actually hearing what she did, the man decided he just had to go and seek her out.  He scrimped and he saved until he had four hundred gold coins.   He made an appointment weeks and weeks in advance.  Can you imagine what those weeks were like for him?  The anticipation?  Like a bridegroom and bride?  Or, virgins before they get married?  Whoo-hoo!  He’s going crazy.  His mind is distracted from everything.

As the days get closer, he travels far, far away like he was supposed to do.  He gets to the woman’s house.  The servant answers the door, and he says, “I am so-and-so.  I have an appointment for today.”  The servant tells him that he may enter.  He goes through the gateway, and exclaims, “Wow! What palatial splendor!”  He is led to an enormous room with seven beds.  Six of the beds are made of silver, and the seventh bed is made of gold.  And there are stepladders between each bed so they can ascend from one to the next.  The bottoms of the stepladders are cast of silver, and the tops are cast from gold.

She is sitting on the top of the first stepladder in front of the first bed.  She is gorgeous!  When she signals him, he climbs up, and she begins to undress him.  He’s got one last thing on – his tzitzit.  Just as she is removing the tzitzit, the strings start to fly against his face.  Aghast, he climbs down the ladder and sits on the floor.  He doesn’t get dressed.  He says to her, “There is nothing wrong with you.  You are the most gorgeous creature I have ever set eyes on.  But my tzitzit are there to remind me not to do this.”  She takes out a pen and paper, and asks him his name, and his rabbi’s name – Rabbi Chiya. She asks him which school he goes to and what city he is from.  He tells her, and he leaves.

He could hardly drag himself away.  He spent all those weeks in anticipation!  Can you imagine what was going on in this guy’s head?  Meanwhile, she sells everything she owns, except the sheets from the bed.  She gave a third of it to the Roman government for taxes, a third she gave to the poor, and a third she kept for herself.  She does OK for herself.  Dressed as her profession, she travels to the man’s yeshiva.  She goes to Rabbi Chiya and says, “Rabbi Chiya, I want to convert.”  He says to her, “Look, maybe you want to convert because you want to marry one of my students?  We don’t accept conversions like that.”  “Oh, I definitely want to marry one of your students,” she replied.  “As it happens, he came to do business with me.”  And she tells him the whole story.  Rabbi Chiya says, “Ah! He is a great guy!  Fine, I’ll convert you.”  He calls over the guy and says, “You see, all you have to do is wait.  Now you are going to get it all the time for free!”

Q: (Laughter) Oh my goodness! This is a Gemara?

RSW: Yes!

What is the Gemara telling you?  The guy wasn’t denying that he had these urges.  He sat down.  He didn’t leave.  He still had the urge.  He didn’t repress them.  His rebbe said, “You wait.  You direct it.  You’ll get it.  It will come out in a positive way so that it will shine, rather than occluding God’s shine onto you.”

That is what the mitzva of tzitzit is.  And when we understand that, God is not asking us to repress who we are, but to redirect it.  And we understand that atem kedoshim, that we are holy.  Holy means that you take your experiences and direct them positively.  It doesn’t mean that you repress what you are, it means you redirect it. And you become holy. And God says, “This is why I took you out of Egypt. I want to be your Lord – ani Hashem Elokeichem – I am God your Lord.”

We say it twice in the last paragraph.  The first time, God says “I am God your Lord.”   The second time God says “I am yours,” followed by emet, v’yatziv, v’nachon – True, and certain, and established, etc.  Meaning I am reliable.  Which is to say, if you hold on, “I promise it will be expressed.”   And that is how the sh’ma works.

When you recite the Sh’ma, you are saying to God, “You want a relationship with us.”  That’s why the blessing just before the Sh’ma is Ahava Rabah – ‘The Great Love You have for us.’  We have to remind ourselves that there is no real relationship.  It doesn’t make sense.  We don’t see God.  We don’t feel Him.  We can’t touch Him.  Yet He keeps reaching out to us.  That’s why Torah is such an important theme in the Sh’ma, because Torah is the way to experience this.

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