Some people say that Jews are smart.
They point to the fact that 20% of Nobel Prize winners are Jews, while Jews make only 0.02% of the world’s population.
Is it true that Jews are smart? And if so, what’s our secret?
It’s not genetics. Simply put, not all Jews are born with higher IQ.
It would be difficult to argue that this has to do with our eating habits. Because while some of us eat Gefillte Fish, others go with hot Moroccan fish, and while some love hot chicken soup and Matzah ball, others are vegetarians.
I believe that the secret lies in a verse in the Torah.
The verse is “Shema Yisrael, Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Echad”.
What does Shema have to do with winning the Nobel Prize?” I can hear you asking. So please hear me out…
We first have to ask ourselves: What is even smart? What makes a person smart and what is the difference between smart and non-smart people?
[To clarify, this conversation is not about acquiring knowledge. Many of us know people who might be walking encyclopedias, but we would still not consider them smart. When we say smart, we think of inventors, pioneers, those whose advice we seek and whose wisdom we cherish]
It seems to me that smart people are those who can see the big picture.
Those who are not smart, only see what is in front of them and react to it. When they see something, it’s all they see.
Smart people see deeper and higher. They are able to analyze, identify trends and look under the surface. When they look at a situation, they know that what they see is only a tiny part of the picture.
The smarter they are, the bigger the picture.
Now, back to the Shema.
“Hear O Israel! G-d is the Lo-rd, G-d is one!”
These words are so familiar to us that we take them for granted. But when this verse was first said, it was revolutionary.
The prevalent religions of the time consisted of many deities, each of which corresponded to different human needs. There was a goddess for health and a god for war; a goddess for the afterlife and a god for the grain. The list goes on and on.
It was easy for the Jewish people to follow this path and see the world as a place controlled by multiple forces.
But Moses taught the Jews to see the bigger picture. Yes, there are health, war, afterlife and grain. They may seem unrelated. But they really are the same. They all come from the same G-d that created them all.
He taught the Jews to connect the dots and gain a deeper understanding.
No wonder Shema is such an important prayer in Judaism.
We are commanded to say it in the morning and evening; we say it with newborns and while we say goodbye to those who are about to leave this world.
There is even a beautiful custom to make some head movements while saying the Shema: to subtly move the head to the right and left, front and back, up and down, to symbolize that G-d is everywhere and everywhere G-d.
Our universe is not just a chaotic collection of creatures who go through life and try to survive, but a unified world created by a G-d and for the same purpose.
It is interesting to note that in recent years, science has also focused on the idea of finding unity in our creation. Beginning with Albert Ainstein (who used to say Shema as a child) who discovered how mass and energy are two sides of one coin.
Being aware of the unity of our world and Creator can also be a source of comfort and calm. In the word of one Chassidic poet:
“Everything is from you / if it’s good, it’s you / and if heaven forbid it’s not, it’s still you / and if you, it must be good”.
May the Shema stay our source of wisdom and comfort; may we always see the big picture; and, please G-d, may the small details look beautiful, too.