Shema Yisrael: Meanings and Messages
– Part II: Conclusion –
Let’s review what we’ve learned so far about the Shema.
- In reciting the Shema verse we accept Hashem as the only real power and our Protector, and proclaim that His rule will be universally recognized in the future.
- The Shema declares that Hashem is ‘One’. This means that He is unique in the Heaven and on Earth; His is the only real existence, as everything else is finite and dependent on Him; and that we must only serve Him.
- The next verse in the Torah exhorts us to love Hashem with all of our heart, soul (life) and means. The Midrash teaches that each of these dimensions was fulfilled by one of our forefathers: Avraham Avinu’s “heart was found faithful” to Hashem; Yitzchak was willing to give up his life at the Akeidah; and Yaakov gave all of his money to be buried in Me’arat Hamachpeilah (and promised to tithe from all blessings he received).
In the rest of the passage (“Ve’ahavta”) we are commanded to keep ‘these words’ on our heart, to teach them to our sons and to speak of them- whether at home or away, lying down or getting up- and to use them in our tefilin and mezuzah. These commandments lead us to keep Hashem in our hearts, leading us to express love of Hashem to our children and others.
While the cause and effect, or reason, behind the following ideas may be beyond us, we can still gain by recognizing some patterns and connections that emerge.
We want to understand why each of our forefathers fulfilled one particular idea- and why in the very order of the verse (Avraham: ‘heart’; Yitzchak: ‘life’; Yaakov: ‘possessions’).
We first need to see some background material. We know that our forefathers embodied three fundamental traits. Avraham’s shining trait was that of Chesed, kindness. He recognized Hashem’s ultimate kindness, and taught this to the world. He showed all strangers kindness by giving them food and shelter, and bringing them closer to Hashem. Yitzchak embodied Gevurah, ‘strength’, sometimes known as ‘fear of Heaven’. He generally lived with a conscious dread of sin, living through the prism of ‘strict justice.’ His ‘self-sacrifice’ was highlighted, we know, at the Akeidah. Avraham and Yitzchak, it may be said, served Hashem from two ‘opposite’ directions. Yaakov came after them and signified Tiferet, beauty- expressed separately as Rachamim, mercy. Our Rabbis teach that Tiferet represents a ‘balance’ of Chesed and Gevurah– and thus Yaakov’s ‘beauty’ was a fusion of his predecessors’ holy ways. (To be precise, we’re taught that Yaakov did not compromise between them. Rather, Tiferet ultimately stands on its own elevated plane; we may, to borrow a phrase, say that here ‘the sum is greater than its parts.” This echo of an infinite, transcendent quality explains how Yaakov also represented Torah study and Truth.)
Our Rabbis explain that the traits of the Avot, our forefathers, reflect Creation itself. Rabbeinu Moshe Chaim Luzzato (1707-1746; Padua, Italy and Acre, Israel) in Mesilat Yesharim teaches that Hashem created the universe in a stunning act of Chesed, supreme kindness; being that He gains nothing from any other ‘existence,’ His creation of our world was completely for our benefit- to gain by coming close to Him and to earn eternal reward.
So, the ‘reason’ for Creation was Chesed. And how did the universe actually came into being? The Midrash (cited by Rashi, Bereisheet) tells us that Hashem first ‘planned’ to create the world utilizing the attribute of Din, strict justice (reminiscent of Gevurah.) Upon ‘seeing,’ however, that Man could not survive such expectations (immutable consequences for his actions), Hashem added mercy- Rachamim (itself reminiscent of Tiferet.)*
As such, we see why the Avot fulfilled their respective aspects of the Shema passage: in their holy service of Hashem, they emulated the traits (so to speak) displayed by Hashem in Creation, and in the same order: first kindness, then justice, and finally a fusion of the two.
The world stands on three things: on Torah, service of God, and on acts of lovingkindness.
-Pirkei Avot, 1:2
In a classic thought, the Maharal of Prague (Rav Yehudah Loew; 1520-1609) explains that our forefathers each embodied one of these pillars; the Torah of Yaakov, the service of Yitzchak, and the kindness of Avraham, then, expressed the very foundations of our world. Now, the holy Avot certainly excelled incredibly in all areas of spiritual accomplishment. Still, each managed to express his unique soul and mission through one specific prism. In the same manner that they embodied distinct traits, the focal point of their work differed as well. Similarly, we understand that the Avot did not each fulfill only one dictum of the Ve’ahavta; rather, they each perfected one approach in their service of God.
When Hashem commanded Avram to leave Ur Kasdim for “the land that I will show you,” He guaranteed the following:
“I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will make your name great.”
What do these words specifically mean? One teaching links them to the future nation’s prayers…
I will make you into a great nation: This refers to how we say (in Amidah) “The God of Avraham.”
And I will bless you: This refers to how we say “The God of Yitzchak.”
And I will make your name great: This refers to how we say “The God of Yaakov.”
One could think that we conclude (the blessing in prayer) with all of them (i.e. “The God of Avraham, the God of Yitzchak, and the God of Yaakov”). The verse therefore (concludes differently, and) says:
And you will serve as a blessing: With you (Avraham) they will conclude- and not with them.
Avraham was thus given a measure of honor that even Yitzchak and Yaakov did not receive; we end the first blessing of Amidah with “Magen Avraham,” referring to Hashem as the “Protector of Avraham,” specifically invoking the merit of Avraham.
Now, we’ve been discussing how the ‘Ve’ahvta’ verse of Shema hints to the Avot in chronological order, alluding to Avraham’s heart, Yitzchak’s life, and Yaakov’s possessions.
The Ga’on of Vilna (cited last week as quoting this teaching) adds another layer to this idea, drawing a parallel between the two teachings: Avraham’s ‘heart,’ in the context of sacrifice for God, is actually also given its own special mention, in the next verse:
And these words that I teach you today shall be on your hearts.
Just as the passage in Lech Lecha ends with a promise that only Avraham will be mentioned in the blessing’s conclusion, so can the verses of Shema be interpreted…
-Ga’on of Vilna
-In other words, this second mention of the heart may be read as a second reference to Avraham. Here too, the reiteration of Avraham may be interpreted as an assurance of his primacy (on some level) among the forefathers- whether in the matter of invoking his merit as we pray, or in recognition of the supremacy of his dimension of sacrifice.
It’s become clear that there is a strong relationship between the Shema- our fundamental declaration of faith in, and love of, Hashem- and our forefathers. The Avot truly perfected the principles that would form the fabric of the nation (B’nei Israel) that they were building. Perhaps, then, our privilege to proclaim the Shema, to stand in prayer, and to strive in all dimensions of serving Hashem stems largely from the indescribable efforts of the Avot.
It should come as no surprise, then, to read a beautiful insight:
The word Ve’ahvta contains the same letters as Ha’Avot (the Forefathers).
-See Ba’al HaTurim, Va’etchanan
At the same time, we also know that Avraham is given unique credit and mention in these areas. Why? We may answer that this too reflects the world’s creation, and the manner in which we connect to- and strive to ‘emulate’- Hashem. The motivation behind creation, so to speak, was Hashem’s Chesed. Therefore, even when other ‘tools’ are used in creating, maintaining, and perfecting the world, it is all truly built on love, on kindness:
For I have said: ‘(Olam) Forever is kindness built; in the very Heavens You establish faith in You.
-Which is alternatively read as:
(Olam) The world is built on kindness…
Moreover, we find an allusion to Chesed as the underlying them in Creation itself:
These are the happenings of the Heavens and the Earth, when they were created (be’hibar’am)…
-Bereisheet, 2:4 (abridged)
-On which our Rabbis comment:
The word be’hibar’am can be rearranged as Avraham
…Meaning that the world was created, as it were, for the sake of Avraham…**
-See Ba’al HaTurim, ibid.
So, it all seems to come together. The world was created as an act of love and kindness, allowing us to reach out to Hashem through love and dedication. Hashem granted us our holy forefathers, who forged the path upon which we would one day tread. Hashem gave us Mitzvot to help us remain conscious of our connection with, and to concretize our love for, Hashem. In other words, we begin with an inspiration of love for Hashem, although we must work on ourselves to truly feel and live with this feeling. And after we successfully live in accordance with God’s will, we find that all along everything was based upon our love for Hashem, and our efforts to emulate- in our own finite way- the kindness Hashem has always shown us. At the same time, we come to spread our love of God to the world- the purpose of our existence. How fortunate we are!
*Of course, Hashem does not, Heaven forbid, make mistakes, nor does He ‘regret’ any of his actions. See the work of Rav Shimshon Pincus (1944-2001; United States and Israel) on Rosh Hashanah, where he sheds light on this Midrash.
** See Rambam in Sefer Hamitzvot, where he cites Avraham’s teaching the world about Hashem as a prime example of true love of Hashem- exactly encapsulating this theme!
Have a great Shabbat!
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.