After we finish reciting the three paragraphs of Shma every morning, we begin a paragraph that sounds very sure of itself: true and firm, certain and enduring, upright and faithful, beloved and cherished, desired and pleasant, awesome and mighty, correct and acceptable, good and beautiful is this affirmation. This declaration was already written in the times of the Mishneh; it is one of our oldest prayers. But what are we declaring and what is its place in the progression of ideas which we call the Shma and its blessings?
Before we attempt to answer those questions, a quick digression. In that list of superlatives describing the sublime nature of this ‘affirmation’ or this declaration that is our recitation of Shma and its accompanying descriptive blessings, there are fifteen terms. That number has significance in Jewish tradition. It is the numeric value (Gematria) of the shortest holy name for God (YOD, HEY). It is also the number of SHIR HAMA’ALOT poems in the Book of Psalms (Tehillim 120-134). Perhaps, most importantly, it is the number of steps built into the Beit HaMikdash, separating the outer courtyard from the inner precinct where the offerings were brought. It was upon this flight of stairs that the Levi’im sang their praises to God. The number fifteen seems to represent the distance between the holy and the mundane.
Now back to the real issue: What new spiritual topic is being introduced in this third and final blessing of the Shma service? Rav Sacks in his introduction to the Koren Siddur writes: The movement from creation to revelation to redemption is one of the great structural motifs of prayer. One example is the three blessings in the morning service surrounding the Shma and leading up to the Amida…The three paragraphs of the Shma display the same pattern…The weekday service as a whole is constructed on this principle. First come the Verses of Praise (Creation)…Then follows the Shma (revelation)…leading to the Amida (Shmoneh Esre, prayer) in which we come to the line ‘a redeemer will come to Zion’ (page xxix).
Rabbi Sacks sees this process as a logical and, perhaps, inevitable progression from God creating heaven and earth. This led to a Creator/Creature relationship with the life forms God made. Then, God decided to communicate with us, and we called it revelation. Finally, God reached into the flow of human civilization and redeemed the Jewish people, maintaining a covenantal relationship with the descendants of Avraham Avinu.
Rav Soloveitchik didn’t see these three processes as a linear progression. He sees instead a philosophic conundrum, which embodies a three step process to reach a logical, but certainly not inevitable conclusion. He sees a thesis: God is the Creator. This established a Creator and creature relationship, sort of like a scientist in a lab and a molecule in a test tube. Not much room for relational growth here.
Then comes the antithesis: God deigns to communicate with these creations. In Kabbalah, this Divine humbling of infinite distance is called TZIMTZUM (retraction or, perhaps, shrinking). In actuality, this creates a paradox. The Infinite Transcendent One becomes immanent or intimate with the lowly, finite creations, namely, us. This is what we mean when we say: Holy, holy, holy is the Eternal, Lord of Hosts, Who fills the entire universe with His glory (Yeshayahu 6:3).
Only God can reconcile such contradictions, like infinite and finite. The Rav often said that a Jew is required to somehow live in harmony with paradoxes. This historic development of the Infinite God of Creation (thesis) somehow accommodating humans with intimate communication or what we call prophecy, as at the epiphany at Mt. Sinai (antithesis) leads to an amazing conclusion: God maintains a covenantal relationship with the Jewish people (synthesis).
This third blessing of Shma called GA’AL YISRAEL (Who has redeemed Yisrael) describes this historic reality. Rav Soloveitchik describes this dichotomy: Indeed, the chosen clan itself is heterogeneous: charismatic-historical and natural-orgiastic (Emergence of Ethical Man, p. 181). We, the Jewish nation, live this impossible duality. We are regular flesh and blood humans who also live a historical and spiritual existence which transcends our mortality.
How do we accomplish this? Let’s go back to the text of our blessing. After we have declared our faith in the promises of the Shma, we state: True is the eternal God, our King, Rock of Ya’akov, Shield of our salvation, from generation to generation He exists.
That’s how we accomplish this Mission Impossible: We teach the next generation to pick up the challenge. That transgenerational assignment is described in the next statement:
His DAVAR (word, idea, assignment) lives and persists, they are faithful and desirable for ever and all time. So they were for our ancestors, so they are for us, and so they will be for our children and all generations and future generations of the progeny of Yisrael, Your servants.
As all life passes on their DNA, we pass on our assignment. To be Jewish is to accept this duty and charge: Keep the Covenant alive! This is the commission accepted by Avraham and described by Moshe, and we are entrusted with its maintenance.
There is one very significant word which appears four times in this first third of our blessing, and it is KAYAM. This means: exist, live, be fulfilled. We keep the Covenant alive. That’s our role.
At the end of the list of fifteen terms for the stable and sublime nature of the material in the Shma, there is the word haDAVAR, the ‘thing’ or ‘word’. I translated it back in the first paragraph as ‘the affirmation’, following Koren. ArtScroll goes for ‘faith’. I think the best translation is ‘the job’.
In the continuation of this blessing we describe God’s intervention into human history to save the Jews. We call that process GEULA or redemption, like GE’ULAT MITZRAYIM, the redemption form Egypt. But it’s more than God coming to the rescue when we’re in trouble it is also us keeping the Covenant alive, so that we’re worth saving. Yes, God does the heavy lifting like miracles and keeping the Cosmos going. But, we as the junior partners in the enterprise have to keep our side of the bargain: Transmit the Torah and its Covenant to future generations.
In the next two sections of this blessing we will discuss and describe how God has intervened on our behalf throughout history. We end this declaration by referencing the paradigm for Divine intervention, the Exodus from Egypt. We will explain all this after a five week lull in the action. Keep the Covenant!