Elli Schwarcz – Shema: Meanings and Messages

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Perhaps the most famous phrase in all of Judaism is found in this week’s Torah reading: the Shema Yisrael prayer. If we can gain a better understanding of these holy words- within both their simple meaning and their deeper connotations- we will gain immeasurably.

Knowing that his time in this world was coming to an end, Moshe Rabbeinu addressed the nation (in a lecture that would essentially become the Book of Devarim) with words of encouragement and admonition. He reminded B’nei Israel of Hashem’s love for them, of the mistakes they had made and the areas in which they needed to improve, and of the spiritual heights they had reached. In so doing, Moshe guided the people, as they prepared to enter the Holy Land, to follow Hashem with complete faith and to cling to His Torah. The following words (and the subsequent passage) fit perfectly into this theme:

Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad.
Hear, Yisrael: Hashem is our God- Hashem is One.

-Va’etchanan, 6:4

 

On the surface, this statement is readily understood. It was a call by Moshe Rabbeinu to the entire nation (thus: “Hear, Yisrael”) to recognize that Hashem is our King (“our God… One”)

 

However, there are several basic questions that we will need to deal with before we can really understand what is being said here…

 

  1. Why was it necessary to tell everyone “to hear” or “to listen?” To loosely quote Rabbi Akiva Tatz: even if this was a very important declaration, were B’nei Israel not already paying close enough attention, so that they now needed to be told to ‘wake up’?

 

  1. What is the precise meaning of Hashem being “our God?”

 

  1. Likewise, what does Moshe Rabbeinu mean when he says “Hashem is One?”

 

  1. Why does this verse seem to be split into two phrases, in which Moshe first proclaims that Hashem is “God” and then separately states that He is “One?”

 

Let’s go through these questions and give some initial answers.

Q: What does the command to “hear” really entail?
A: We must hear, understand and accept/believe (see Teshuvot HaRashba, V.5 [55])

Q: What is the significance of Hashem being “our” God? To whom does this refer? 
A: It refers specifically to B’nei Israel; Hashem keeps us as His Chosen Nation and gives us special protection. (Rashi; Rashba [ibid].)

Q: What is meant by Hashem being “One”? Lehavdil, human beings are also “unique!” 
A: He is unique in the Heaven and on Earth (Rashi to Brachot 13b); His is the only real existence, as everything else is finite and dependent on Him (Seforno); We must only serve Him, and nothing else (Rashbam).

Q: Why is the verse split into two parts- first declaring that Hashem is our God and then that Hashem is One? Wouldn’t it be more concise to say something like “Hashem, our God, is One”?
A: This is a specific, sequenced message: Hashem’s rule is now only fully recognized by His Nation; in the future, all will know that He is One (based on Rashi).

To summarize, we accept Hashem as the only real power and our Protector, and proclaim that His rule will be universally recognized in the future.

Now we can go deeper. Analyzing the next verse of this passage should prove helpful:

 
And you shall love Hashem your God with all of your heart, and with all of your soul, and with all of your means.

-Va’etchanan, 6:5

-In other words, after having accepted Hashem as omnipotent King, we are told to love Him with everything that we have. We would be inclined to think that there is a basic flow between these verses: our subjugation to Hashem leads us to love Him. If that’s correct, how does it work?

 

We’ll add another question here before answering the two of them…

Looking ahead to the next verses, we are told that “these words” (this passage of the Shema) must basically surround us: they should be on our hearts; taught to our children; spoken of constantly; and be written as the mezuzah and as tefillin.

But why must we always be conscious of the ‘Shema’? And how does this myriad of Shema applications connect with our love of Hashem?

 

Rashba (Rabbeinu Shlomo ben Aderet) explains the linkage between Shema itself and the very next verse (loving Hashem in three ways):

After we know and agree to this, then it is truly fitting to love Him [Hashem] with all of our hearts and with all of our souls and with all of our means- because all is from Him, and He gives from His own possession… 

 

-Teshuvot HaRashba, V.5 [55]

In typical deep and elegant language, Rashba goes on to show the verses’ emphasis on loving Hashem- specifically that our feelings for Hashem should by definition supplant any sinful and materialistic urges. This approach to Hashem should be “engraved in our hearts”. One has not fully attained true love of Hashem until he enjoys his connection with Him.

This, then, is why the Torah tells us to teach these words to our sons; it should be “like a person who teaches his son things that are sweet to him, and [so] are fluent in his mouth and he speaks of them constantly”. It is in this vein, concludes Rashba, that we are commanded to keep these words “between our eyes” and “on the doorposts of our homes;” we must remain conscious of them always.

Rambam (Maimonides) writes that a person arrives at loving Hashem through contemplation of all of the wonders which He performs, including His creations, and the infinite wisdom contained therein. Then,

immediately he loves and praises and extolls, and gains a great urge to know Hashem…   

-Mishneh Torah, Yesodei HaTorah, 2:2

 

Rambam elsewhere discusses loving Hashem, reminding us of the verses of Shema:

We must think about and contemplate His commandments and teachings and actions… 

-Sefer Hamitzvot, Mitzvah 2

 

 

Let’s now look at a teaching from our Rabbis. The Gaon of Vilna (commentary on Parashat Balak) and others (see also Ba’al Haturim here; Rashba [ibid.]) quote a beautiful Midrashic passage* on this verse:

‘…with all of your hearts’:
This alludes to Avraham Avinu, about whom [Hashem] said: “And I found his heart faithful before Me” (-Nechemia, 9:10)

‘…and with all of your soul’:
This alludes to Yitzchak Avinu, who gave up his own life [to be slaughtered as a sacrifice at the Akeidah] for the sanctification of Hashem’s Name.

‘…and with all of your possessions’:
This alludes to Yaakov Avinu, who gave all of his money for the sake of the Land of Israel [in purchasing the burial plot of Me’arat Hamachpela from Esav]…

This teaching certainly highlights prime examples of the above verse’s fulfillment, and reminds us to learn from our forefathers’ righteous ways. Yet there must be something deeper at work here as well- as evidenced by some simple points:

  1. Did each of the forefathers fulfill only one of the commands of the verse?
  2. Why did all of them complete the specific tasks they did?
  3. Is it just a coincidence that our first forefather, Avraham, accomplished the first dictum, his son Yitzchak the second, and Yaakov, Yitzchak’s son, the third?

We’ll have to wait until we can delve further into this amazing teaching- and this important subject on the whole. For now, let’s summarize what we’ve seen so far:

 

We’ve learned that in the Shema we declare that Hashem is the only Power, recognize Him as our Protector, and proclaim that His rule will be universally accepted in the future.

We also know that one who takes these ideas “to heart,” especially via the commandments that serve as constant reminders, will be moved to share his love for Hashem with his children. Similarly, we should be working actively on loving God- to the point that we are motivated to express our feelings about Him- and everything He created and does for us- to those around us. Lastly, our forefathers are cited as examples of sacrificing for Hashem: Avraham with his heart, Yitzchak with his life, and Yaakov with his possessions. And we still have questions…

*There is some question regarding the source of this Midrash, cited by the Gaon as Sifri. Rav Shlomo Brevda zt”l pointed out that this teaching is not found in any Sifri currently in print. Rashba and Ba’al Haturim do give this explanation independently, yet neither openly cites the Midrash as a source. Also, Ba’al Haturim’s example for Yaakov Avinu’s sacrificing possessions differs, instead citing Yaakov’s pledge to ‘give back’ from all blessings Hashem would give him:
“And all that You will give me, I will surely tithe for You.” (-Vayeitzei, 28:22)

 

Have a great Shabbat!

Elli Schwarcz

Elli Schwarcz is an alumnus of the Toras Moshe, Ner Israel, and Carteret Yeshivos, and has been involved in Jewish outreach for almost 15 years. He is a Hebrew School and English Language Arts teacher, and has a Master’s Degree in Counseling from Johns Hopkins University. Of all his pursuits, Elli most enjoys teaching high-level Jewish thought and Talmud to teenage boys, exposing them to the beauty and wisdom of their heritage while highlighting their own ability to engage in advanced Torah learning. Elli lives in Lakewood, New Jersey, with his wife and children.

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