שמע ישראל יהוה אלהינו יהוה אחד
You know these words right? Almost all, if not everyone of you who reads this, know these words. (Shema Yisrael Adonoi Ehloheinu Adonoi Echad). And if I were to ask you where they are from, most of you would say the siddur; these are the words of a prayer, the central prayer of Jewish faith. This was the first prayer most of you learned as children. It’s the prayer recited on a death bed. We recite the prayer when we rise in the morning and go to sleep at night. The prayer was recited by martyrs of our people before they died. And we hear it twice every day in our services. The words actually come from this week’s parshah. They were not written as a prayer.
Hear O’Israel the Lord is our God the Lord is ONE.
Like so much in our tradition, this is not a simple expression. Think of the questions it evokes. We typically think of a prayer being recited to The Power beyond us. These words are not recited to God, rather it’s a statement made to “Israel”. When we sit in the synagogue we are saying these words to all those who sit in the community with us. It’s as if we are saying ”Listen folks, this is our faith”.
The meaning of the “oneness” of God is profound. And its implication include that God serves as a unifying force to values, ethics and morals.
Consider the following: The last letters of the first and last words of the shema are ע “ayin” and ד “dalet”. Wherever they are written, be it in the Torah or Siddurim, these letters are larger than the rest. עד “ayin dalet” spells “eid” and this means witness. And so the meaning of the Shema grows in the following way. We should live our lives as if we are witnesses to God’s presence in the world. That means a lot. That speaks to issues of our language, pursuit of truth, peace, justice. It speaks to the way we treat the elderly and the treatment of others. It speaks to our capacity to raise humanity above its animal instincts; to reject revenge and cruelty. It’s very powerful to be a witness to God’s presence. Ask yourself how you are that witness.
And finally, the Shema is followed by a commandment to love God fully. This is a love that implies an obligation. We know that God loves us. It is shown in different ways; life, the world of nature, God’s forgiveness, and the giving of life sustaining laws. To witness God’s presence is to live a life devoted to His Torah, to live by its ethical demands and to be able to give and receive love.
A little Torah for this “Tu B’Av” the Jewish holiday of love.
See you in shul…. tonight will be a festival of love songs….
Rabbi David Steinhardt
PS – Don’t forget to wear white tonight!
This column is dedicated to the memory of Rubin Shafran z”l