Finally, we have arrived at the actual recitation of the Shma. After seven articles about the two blessings before we recite Shma every morning, we get to survey the actual verses from the Torah which are mandated to be read every morning and, again, every evening. We will try to explain the content of these three paragraphs, with the emphasis on why it’s so crucial that they be recited twice daily.
This process begins with: Shma (listen attentively or, perhaps, understand) the Eternal is our God, the Eternal is unique (Devarim 6:4). But a custom developed to recite EL MELECH NE’EMAN (God is a faithful King) before declaring the statement, at least when praying alone. Most authorities explain that the addition of these three words brings the total of words in the three paragraphs to 248, equal to the positive Mitzvot in the Torah. A fine custom, but not universal, and not mine personally.
These six words of the Shma pronouncement have become associated with the very essence of Judaism. It is belted out with gusto by most shul regulars, while covering our eyes for added concentration. But what are we declaring? Initially, I think that most early Jews were differentiating between themselves and the rest of the world who were polytheists. The Ibn Ezra avers that it is sufficient just to know our ancestors recited it and that it is a mitzvah. Over time many ideas were added to the cholent.
The Vilna Gaon suggests that it means the Eternal always was, our God is ruling now, and the Eternal will always be in charge. The Ohr Hachayim adds: 1. Only one Being deserves the appellation God, 2) This Being is God to the Jews, and 3. This Being is a unique phenomenon in the Cosmos.
Rav Soloveitchik describes our daily recitation as ‘a dialogue between the ages, the continual restaging of the historic meeting of Jacob and sons, pregnant with paradoxical destiny. Full of import…In reading the Shma we enter the presence of those persons who walked with Him, we stand in their shadow; we converse with men who, though they die a biological death, have been reincarnated time and again in our historical experience…The great drama of destiny, begun by the Patriarchs is reenacted, again (Worship of the Heart, p. 112).
The Rav is, of course, referring to the famous Midrashic story: When Ya’akov gathered the 12 sons to bless them. He was concerned because Avraham and Yitzchak had sons who left the Covenant. The twelve tribes upon hearing this concern recited Shma. Ya’akov responded: Blessed is the Name of Glory, His Kingship is forever. And this has become the whispered follow up to the Shma declaration.
The Vilna Gaon suggests that the silent recitation of BARUCH KAVOD fulfills the verse: It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; but the glory of kings is to reveal a matter (Mishlei 25:2). Our acceptance of the yoke of Divine rule of God our King is stated loudly, while our declaration concerning our glory to God is spoken in hidden style, silently.
Now we begin to describe the components of our total acceptance of God’s rule over us, and we state: You shall love the Eternal, your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might (Devarim 6 5). What is this love? The Rambam in the tenth chapter of his Laws of Repentance: One who serves out of love occupies himself in the Torah and the Mitzvot and walks in the paths of wisdom for no ulterior motive: not because of fear that evil will occur, nor in order to acquire benefit. Rather, he does what is true because it is true, and ultimately, good will come because of it. This is a very high level which is not merited by every wise man. It is the level of our Patriarch, Abraham, whom God described as, “he who loved Me,” for his service was only motivated by love (law 2). In other words, the love we’re discussing is cognitive. The love of God is knowledge of God and motivates all our actions.
The Rav explains it a bit differently: I love because I feel that in this (love) is my very existence warranted, worthwhile and relevant; I love insofar as my existence is attached to and integrated into another existence (p. 135). Complete love is total absorption in the relationship.
The verse then describes that our total being has three components: LEV (heart, here the seat of all thought and emotion, double heart LEVOV), NEFESH, life force, and MEOD.
What is this MEODECHA? Obviously, there are many approaches to this issue, but the most famous is MAMONECHA, financial resources. I like: In every measure and measure that God has apportioned to you. In other words, my love for God is powerful no matter my circumstances. There can be no situation in which my love for God would diminish.
Because my love for God is constant in every life circumstance. I find meaning in everything that life throws my way. To the Greeks, tragedy is associated with the absurd. We live a life of mitzvot, holy actions, with a meaningful response to every situation. Purposiveness and meaning are imparted to even tragedy and suffering.
This brings us to the last concept we’ll explore in this piece: These words which I command you today shall be on your heart, Teach them diligently to your children, when you repose at home, and when you travel on the way, when you lie down and when rise up (verses 6 & 7). From these two verses, we learn both the mitzvah of Torah study and the obligation of reciting the Shma, morning and evening.
Very heavy obligations have been placed upon every Jew in the preceding verses. How can one approach these responsibilities cogently and effectively? Only through intense Torah study; Torah study which accompanies every facet and circumstance of one’s life. If one gets to Carnegie Hall through practice, then one arrives at the status of observant Jew only through a dedication to Torah study. And just like, as the Rav explained, the declaration of Shma is a continuation of a ‘dialogue between the ages’, so, too, Torah study gains its fullest meaning for Jewish life when it becomes our legacy to our progeny and students.
We have explored the ideas, responsibilities and ramifications of our commitment to the pledge of SHMA YISRAEL. Next week, we’ll continue on in the recitation of Shma to see the consequences of these pledges, both good and bad.