Shema and Godfather of Soul

Koren's Ani Tefila Siddur
Koren's Ani Tefila Siddur

Six decades ago, James Brown set foot on the stage at the Apollo theater in New York City for a performance that was to be recorded and later stayed the #1 album for over a year. Through his energetic performance, he changed how listeners thought about the groove and how musicians counted the beat.  He made “The One” a cultural touchstone.

What is “The One?” Count if off with me in your funky voice.  ONE, two, three four. ONE, two, three, four. 

“You hit the ONE to say you are here,” said James Brown’s drummer John “Jabo” Starks.

Now, think back to the last time you covered your eyes and said the first line of the Shema.

SHEMA Israel, Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Echad.  

SHEMA. Hear. Listen. Speak. SHEMA. Hear. Listen. Speak.

Our words acknowledge our interplay with the divine. We speak but we hear Hashem’s echo within us – like an endless funk groove that reaches a very deep place.  With our words and our listening, we honor the moment and stand at the pinnacle of our singular relationship with Hashem.

Soul legend and Brown’s bassist Bootsy Collins describes “The One” as the part of the beat that serves as a place to return to over and over. It provides a moment at the top of the four-beat count to hit the beat hard and center the band for the rest of the notes.

The twice-daily Shema (or whenever we say it) reminds us where we stand and the crucial role we play in the rhythmic dance with Hashem, our purpose, and our destiny.  

In an essay, Chana Weisberg at Chabad states, “…listening is an intense experience involving perceiving, deeply thinking about, and internalizing. It’s also a transformative act, one that forges a strong bond between the speaker and listener.”  

This bond, this moment, between man and Hashem, can be EVERYTHING.

In his book review of the James Brown biography, “The One,” journalist Mark Reynolds says that The One, “…is not so much a musicological place as it is a spiritual place, as the navigation of that beat is invested with age-old rhythms and nuances that end up propelling the rest of everything else – the tune, the band, the audience and Brown himself – into a strutting, rump-shaking beatitude.”

The joyfulness of the Shema has held us together as a people. It’s what we put our kids to sleep with. For many, it’s the final words we say on this plane of existence.  For most, it’s how we place ourselves in the larger context of humanity and with Hashem. Hear me and I hear you.  

James Brown implored us to Get up, Get on up! Get up, Get on up!

The Shema says to us – be present, be “on the one,” and set your spiritual groove free.

About the Author
Dan is a veteran public relations, political communications and media strategist. He founded Full Court Press Communications 20 years ago. He is also the host of Mindful Work - a podcast at the intersection of Mindfulness, Jewish Thought, and Business. He resides in Israel.
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