What an invigorating week! Last Thursday I visited our Agudas campers at Camp Young Judaea in Wimberly, followed by our first Family Friendly Friday Night Service on Friday. Sunday there was a "Popsicle Playdate" for our young families and a wonderful Hadassah event that afternoon! When I thought about everything from those three short days, being with diverse parts of our community, I realized how united we actually are.
Of the 4,875 verses in the Torah, one stands out. The words Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad, "Hear, O Israel, The Lord is Our God, The Lord is One," [i] have been recited by Jews for eons. They are among the first words taught to a child and the last words spoken at death. Jewish martyrs have proudly pronounced them, and through the centuries it has constituted the most universally known Hebrew phrase. In our Torah portion, Parashat Vaechtenan, we find it at Deuteronomy 6:4.
As the most fundamental statement in all of Judaism, our commentators have expounded on it for centuries. Rabbi Joseph Hertz, once the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, says that there is no utterance found in literature that can be compared in its intellectual and spiritual force. Well-known modern commentator Rabbi Gunther Plaut characterizes the Shema as "a precious gem...a diamond set into a crown of faith and proven true and enduring in human history."
Despite these testimonials to the significance of the Shema, commentators still raise questions. Some claim that the Israelites first said the Shema as they were standing at Sinai, while others argue that the phrase "Adonai our God" means "God is our Source." In other words, human beings derive from God and are made in God's image.
Our most famous commentator, Rashi, offers a different approach. For him the words "Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, The Lord is One" translate into "Hear, O Israel: Adonai, whom we recognize as our God, will one day be accepted by all people as One, and their belief in one God will unite us as one human family." Another medieval commentator, Maimonides, holds that the Shema is not a statement of hope that all human beings will eventually agree that "God is One" but a theological declaration that "the cause of all existence is One."
The Ramban (1194-1270), along with other observers, offers a different slant. He claims that this is the first and only instance when Moses is speaking and says "our God" instead of "your God." The idea is that all Jews must bear witness to God's unity and power.
Throughout the centuries, Jews have recited the Shema as the most important expression of faith. We have regarded the words as "love letters" but have also wrestled over the meanings, deciphering various messages as if these words contained clues to understanding their relationship to God. The exploration and debate continue. This declaration of Jewish faith remains a source of inspiration and an ongoing challenge.
Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham
[i] It is worthy to note the next "part" of the Shema (Baruch Shem Kavod) is not even in the Torah; it is from the days of the Temple. The High Priest would pronounce God's name, and the people would respond. Nowadays it is not said aloud except on Yom Kippur, and we will speak about that as the day approaches.