During World War II, a number of European Jewish children were sheltered by Christians. Knowing that they faced near-certain death, their parents handed them over to local orphanages for ‘safekeeping.’ Tragically, most of these parents never made it out alive to come back for their children. And so, following the war, Rabbi Isaac Herzog, the first chief rabbi of Israel, set out on a mission to bring the children home to the Jewish people. As he went from orphanage to orphanage, convent to convent, however, he received the same response, ‘Sorry, we have no Jewish children here.’
He had no documentation to prove the kids were Jewish. But he had heard the stories and deep down he just knew that there had to be hundreds, if not thousands, of these missing children still in the Christian convents. One day, he hit upon a plan. He walked into the orphanage and screamed out Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad. And instinctively, many of the youngsters suddenly raised their right hands to cover their eyes, demonstrating their true roots! Having proven their Jewishness beyond a shadow of a doubt, Rabbi Herzog managed successfully to save the children and bring them back home to Israel and the Jewish people.
In Parshat Vayigash we read about the amazing reunion between Yaakov and Yosef. After 22 terrible years of mourning, father is now heading down to Egypt to meet his long lost son. “And Yosef harnessed his chariot and went up to greet Israel his father in Goshen, and he appeared before him. He fell upon his neck and wept and wept upon his neck” [Gen. 46:29].
How about Yaakov? How did he react upon being reunited with the son he assumed dead for the last 22 years? Why does the Torah not mention his embrace of Yosef? Rashi explains: Yaakov did not fall upon Yosef’s neck and did not kiss him. Our Sages teach that he was in the middle of reciting the Shema (and therefore couldn’t interrupt to respond).
Seriously?! Why was he saying Shema just at that moment? He hasn’t seen his son for 22 years and only now decides to daven?
There are several reasons given as to why Yaakov was reciting the Shema at that exact moment. The Kotzker Rebbe (1787-1859) explains that Yaakov gathered all of his emotions of happiness and channelled them towards his love for Hashem. He realized the miracle he was experiencing and focused it upon the One Above and shouted out the Shema. Lekutei Yehudah (a collection of teachings of the Gerer Rebbes) suggests that Yaakov was old and weak and thought he was having a heart attack. You could imagine how he must have been feeling to finally see his son, and so he said the Shema as one would do when one thinks it is their last few minutes on earth!
Why is the Shema the final prayer one recites? What is the Shema prayer? Where did it originate from?
The Talmud (Pesachim 56a) relates the first time we encounter the recitation of the Shema: Yaakov is on his deathbed surrounded by all of his children, and he wants, ‘to reveal the time of Mashiach,’ but suddenly goes blank. He reasons to himself that one or two of them must be unworthy – after all, both his father and grandfather had children that were unworthy. Sensing his hesitation, they all cry out in unison, “Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad” – Listen, Israel, Hashem is our G-d, Hashem is one – assuring him that just like there’s only one G-d in his heart there’s only one G-d in their hearts. Yaakov responds, “Baruch shem kevod malchuto l’olam va’ed.” Having heard what he wanted, he could now rest in peace. (Incidentally, since Yaakov’s response does not appear in our Torah text of the Shema, when we say the Shema we recite his line quietly.)
That’s all very interesting, but that story occurs in the following parsha of Vayechi. How did Rashi know that Yaakov was saying the Shema when he first meets Yosef in our parsha? The Talmud seems to suggest that the first instance of the Shema happens only later, and it’s not Yaakov who says it, it’s his children! Actually, an even better question is, how did Yaakov’s 12 sons all know the same line to declare in unison?
I would like to suggest that Shema was Yaakov’s family slogan. It was something he said to himself on an everyday basis. If we look closely at the Shema, who is Yisrael? It’s Yaakov! He’s saying, ‘Listen, Yaakov!’ Yaakov is telling himself throughout all these years of suffering over not being able to know if his son is alive: Listen Yaakov, Hashem is here and Hashem is One. I don’t understand why I am suffering now, why I am going through all this pain, but I do know that Hashem is the Master of the Universe and Hashem is One. That’s what his sons heard all their lives and that’s how they knew to say it in unison at his death bed.
So, of course, says Rashi, when Yaakov finally sees his son, his response was the comforting words he had been telling himself all those years, ‘Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad’!
It’s his slogan. It’s the family slogan. But even more: Yaakov gave the Jewish people their family slogan. We all know the Shema, it’s first thing we say when we arise and when we go to sleep, when we are born and before we pass. Yaakov’s timeless slogan left an indelible mark upon his children and children’s children for all generations. The post-Holocaust orphanage kids knew precious little about their Jewish heritage, but one thing they could never forget: the family slogan.
Yaakov Avinu taught us that the way to instil values in our children is to have a family slogan. While he created a slogan for his children, our great-grandparents, every parent has to develop their own personal family slogan.
And ultimately, every family has a slogan. It’s what your kids hear you say all the time. (Whether you realise it or not!) It’s the primary values you live by. I once heard this idea described by Dr. David Pelcovitz as your family’s ‘bumper sticker.’ It’s your go-to line, what you stand for, the values you’ve chosen for your family.
What is your family slogan? What do your kids hear you say, day in and day out? What will your children and grandchildren respond in unison for generations to come?
 Some attribute the story to Rabbi Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman.