by Meyer Shwarzstein
From Wikipedia I learned that the Shema is one of the sentences that is quoted in the New Testament. I also learned that Justin Beiber says the Shema before each public performance with his manager Scooter Braun, who is Jewish. So, clearly, it’s an important prayer.
The Shema teaches us the importance of listening. I looked up quotes about listening. Ernest Hemingway said, “When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.” The Sefer Yetzirah suggests that indeed Love is Listening.My favorite is from John Wayne. “You’re short on ears and long on mouth.”
The tradition of closing our eyes comes from a commentary on the Gemara regarding Rab Yehuda HaNasi. His students would notice him pass his hand over his eyes when he said the first verse of the Shema. It is said it was to help him concentrate.
When else do we close our eyes? When we cry and when we kiss. When we sing, when we sleep, when we pray and when we dream. When we sneeze and when we die.
We open our eyes and say, and you shall love your HaShem your God with all your heart, with all your soul and all me’odechah. (Me’odechah is often translated as might, but it can more broadly refer to that which we have in physical realm.)
All of your heart – might this include crying or kissing? All your soul – might this include transcendent activities like singing, praying, and dreaming? All your me’odechah – might this include sneezing and sleeping? Dying encompasses them all.
The Mishnah points out that if it meant “with all your heart,” it should read B’chol Leebcha. The extra letter “bet” suggests a second heart or 2 innate inclinations – good and bad: the Yetzer Tov and the Yetzer HaRah. Is it by overcoming the Yetzer HaRah that we serve God? The Rambam suggests that the Yetzer HaRah isn’t “bad” as much as it’s worldly – the desire for food, drink, and other physical gratification can be realized in a manner that serves God.
One of the most beautiful commentaries in the Mishnah has to do with the word me’odechah. It suggests that it means – “B’chol Midah” – with whatever measure God metes out to you, “havi modeh lo” – you are to thank him. Midah b’midah – measure for measure. You can only give from that which you have, but you are also obligated to give from what you have.
Those are all well and good, but there’s a curious question raised by the Shema. How can we be commanded to love anyone, let alone God?
I would suggest that even in moments when we’re unable to find a way to love God, this prayer has supreme merit as it defines our priorities. First comes levovechah. For our loved ones, we’d sacrifice anything – even Nafshecha – our spirit or life. You may have heard the story this week of Lt. Eitan. When he heard that Hamas kidnapped Hadar Goldin, Eitan defied orders and chased the captors thru a Gaza tunnel. Some people, things, values are worth risking our lives for. What comes last? Me’odechah.
All three are necessary ingredients for full life. Without love, without self-respect and without the willingness and effort required to clothe and feed ourselves, we would be purposeless and homeless.
When we introduce God into the equation – or at least something greater than ourselves – we can look at the world with humility. Then, we are better positioned to help those who may be purposeless or homeless.
There’s a rabbi who said that the Shema is such an integral part of our service that all of the prayers which are said before the Shema in our service are pointed towards it.
“It’s the Yichud, the unification, a moment we’ve been building up to…Who’s saying these words? Moses our teacher. Listen Israel – you individual member, here and now, of an ancient God-wrestling people: Yah Eloheinu – the god you think of as your God; and all the gods that all the peoples of the earth imagine, each with their own imagery and language, as their gods – all those “our Gods” (eloheinu) are ONE. Unique. All-there-is. In the heart of that yichud, that unification, we are all one. I am not I, and you are not you.”
Those are the words of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, who passed away last month. Reb Zalman was raised a Hasid and found a way to fuse the essential Jewish thoughts with universal ideas. He influenced many people including an Angeleno named David Zeller.