What are the most fundamental words in the Torah? Can we ask such a question? The entire Torah is holy and we should not single out any words. Yet, we know that throughout our long exile certain words have stuck to us with vigour. Perhaps the Ten Commandments, perhaps Kriat Shema, Both of these appear in our Parsha.
“Our Rabbis taught, when a child begins to speak, his father must teach him Torah and Keriat Shema.” (Talmud Sukka 42a)
What is the Shema all about? What do these words represent and why have these words stuck through our nations history being so dear to us?
Through Shema, one affirms the unity of the nation and our commitment to Hashem’s Sovereignty (Kabbalat Ol Malchut Shamayim, accepting the yoke of Heaven).
Let us focus on the words and their sequence. Why do we not say Shema Yisrael Hashem Echad, (and then) Hashem Elokenu? – Listen Israel, Hashem is One, He is our G-d. Why do we need to say Hashem is our G-d before we mention that He is One?
The first time we are told about the Shema is with Yakov. The Gemara Pesachim (56a) relates that Yakov wanted to tell his sons when Mashiach would come, but, as he was about to, the Divine Inspiration left him and he was unable to reveal the information. Yaakov thought that Hashem left him because one of his children was unworthy. His sons realized this and, to calm their father, they declared, “Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad,” “Hear, Yisrael, Hashem our G-d is the only G-d,” showing their firm belief in Hashem. Yaakov, seeing he had nothing to fear, responded, “Baruch Sheim Kevod Malchuto LeOlam Va’ed,” “Blessed be his name of glorious kingship forever,” thanking Hashem for his righteous sons.
The brothers wished to reassure Yaakov of their unity. They thus turned to him and expressed Hashem Elokenu – Hashem is OUR G-d. We are a team, we are all servants of Hashem and we all work lovingly together.
Hashem Elokenu comes to teach us that in order for the Shechina to rest on us we must be a united nation. More than that, we must realise that Hashem is Elokenu – Our G-d, He is the G-d of every single Jew. He is not just my G-d. It is not just about me going to pray and doing Mitsvot and serving Hashem in my own small world, but it is more about serving Hashem together as a united people. Hashem is first Elokenu our G-d and then we can say that Hashem is One. Through our unity, we come to the realisation and manifestation that He is One.
The torah emphasizes the importance of the Kriat Shema by commanding us to recite this statement TWICE daily. Beshokbecha – at nighttime and Ubekumecha – in the morning. In fact, there is a debate between the Rambam who holds the recitation twice is one mitzvah and the Ramban who holds it is two separate Mitsvot!
Throughout the ages from the beginning of our exile to the sad days of the holocaust, Jews have been martyred with the words of Shema.
Rabbi Akiva was among those ten great personalities who died sanctifying G-d’s name. The Gemara Berachot (61b) relates that as Rabbi Akiva was being tortured to death his students saw him reciting the Shema with joy, seemingly oblivious to the pain he was enduring.
Rabbi Akiva’s students, were amazed at their teacher’s endurance and understood the moment to be far more profound than mere courage and endurance. They asked their beloved teacher, “Is the Mitzvah of reciting the Shema incumbent upon an individual under such dire circumstances?” Rabbi Akiva explained. “The Torah commands us to love G-d with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our belongings. All my life I wondered whether I would ever fulfil this Mitzvah of loving G-d with all my soul. Now that I have bee granted the opportunity of loving G-d with my very life should I not do so with joy and exultation?”
Our Parsha is blessed with two wonderful gems, the Shema and the Ten Commandments. The Koshnitzer Maggid writes that since on Tisha B’Av we are forbidden from learning Torah, we read the Ten Commandments in order to re-accept the Torah, and the Shema to re-accept the “yoke of Heaven”.
As a nation that has survived millennium of persecution and suffering, we have a fascination with how our heroes have died and how one should die. In the aftermath of the Swiss Air tragedy, a Talit was found floating in the ocean. Tragically, Mr. Klein, an observant Jew, was a passenger on that fateful flight and it was his Talit that had been recovered among the wreckage. Mr. Klein’s children confirmed that their father never placed his Talit and Tefilin through the regular baggage service but always carried them with him on board. The problem was that it was night time when the flight crashed into the Atlantic and the Talit, which is usually not worn at night, should have been enclosed in its zippered velvet “zekel – bag” which was inside a zippered plastic cover. How did Mr. Klein’s Talit get out of its bag? The children surmised that in the six minutes prior to the crash when the passengers knew that the plane was in trouble their father, knowing that the situation was serious took out his Talit and put it on. That is the way a true “Eved G-d – Servant of G-d” prepares for possible disaster – wrapped in his Talit and immersed in Tefilah – prayer. It is fair to assume that Mr. Klein’s final words, like Rabbi Akiva’s, were “Shema Yisrael…”.
We begin our lives with the Shema, we recite it twice daily and we hope to end our lives with the Shema.
The Recitation of the Shema affirms our unity as nation and solidifies our acceptance of G-d as King. It discusses loving G-d, sacrificing for G-d, Torah study, G-d’s Oneness, Tefilin, mezuzah, and many more facets to serving Him. This is unmistakably a major reason why we feel a close connection to the Shema prayer.