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Parshat Va'etchanan (5760)

This week’s section contains one of the most important sentences in the Torah, one that even most unobservant Jews know: (6:4) ‘Shma Yisroel’;

‘Listen Jews, G-d is our G-d, G-d is one!’

What does this strange statement mean, and why is it so central to Judaism?

Why does it begin with ‘Listen Jews’?
And what is the meaning of ‘G-d is OUR G-d’?
Why can’t we just simply say, “G-d is One” and drop the rest. Isn’t that the big Monotheistic message?

First, a story.
Once there was a simple Chassid who, when he would say Shma Yisroel in the daily prayers, would begin trembling so violently that he would fall off his chair on to the floor, roll up in a ball and shake for several minutes.
The other Chassidim, when they saw he wasn’t faking, were very envious of him and finally one day one of them cornered him privately and asked him what was his secret. The Chassid immediately answered, “Well. It’s all thanks to the Rav (Rabbi). You see, I used to see how all the other Chassidim would take hours praying and how they would look like they are in another world, (especially when they said “Shma Yisroel”), and I felt really bad that I don’t pray like that. So I asked one of them how he does it, and he explained that every day before praying he learns an hour of Chassidus (books written by the Chassidic Rebbes, Chabad Rebbes wrote hundreds of such books). But, after all I’m just a simple farmer (and the fact is, I don’t read so well either), so I figured I’d have to find another answer.

Well, I got up some courage and I went and asked the Rav. He was really nice and he tried to explain me something about how we should love and fear G-d because the world doesn’t really exist but G-d creates it constantly, even the angels and the heavens and more things. Anyway, I even wrote what he said down and looked at it every time before I said “Shma” … but nothing happened.

So I went back to the Rav again and asked for something easier, and he looked at me for a few minutes in deep thought and told me like this; ‘Zalman, what is the most frightening thing you ever saw?’

So I thought for a minute and then I remembered, and I told him. ‘One time a huge turkey got mad at me and suddenly, without warning, attacked me in the barn. He was flapping his huge wings and screeching, and I was so scared I almost fainted.’


‘Aha!” said the Rav “That’s what you should think about! Each time you say ‘Shma’ … think about that turkey! Picture every detail, the wings, the beak, and his eyes. Then try to think that G-d is even bigger! In fact he even CREATES THE TURKEY!’ And that is why I shake when I say Shma.”

That is why we don’t just simply say ‘G-d is One’, because that would leave it in the realm of a cold idea, at best a cold religious idea. It would unreal and impersonal. And the point of the Shma is that we can FEEL the Oneness of G-d; how He is VERY close, in fact closer to us than we are to our own selves!!! (That is the theme of the Chabad masterpiece ‘Tanya’)

That is why we cover our eyes when we say it; to try to FEEL this closeness.

In fact we should feel it so much that the emotional implications of the very next sentence (6:5) follow almost automatically:
“You will LOVE G-d Your G-d with all your heart, all your soul, and all your might.”

In other words, like our farmer friend learned from the turkey, so we will want to learn how to acquire these three types of love (all your heart, soul and wealth) of HaShem.

And our Rabbis gave us advice how to do it:

If you love your family, then you can learn from that how to love G-d with all your heart. From how much you love your own life and want to live, you can learn to love G-d with all your soul. And from how you love your money you can learn to love G-d with all your might. (Because, after all, G-d creates your family, life and money constantly, every instant.)

That is why we say ‘OUR G-d’. Just as a person doesn’t get so emotional if the family, life, or money is not his own, so we should feel that G-d is not just the Rabbi’s or Moses’ or someone else’s, but rather OURS.

But in order to come to this, first we must say “Shma Yisroel”.

“Shma” in this context means not just to physically hear, but rather to contemplate and understand deeply, like people say to their children, “Do you HEAR what I’m saying”.

And ‘Yisroel’ refers to the innermost level of the Jewish soul of which it says, “Even though he is a sinner he is a Yisroel”. This is a Jew’s infinite connection to HaShem; it is always there, and it is the source of all the above-mentioned G-dly feelings.

So the ‘Shma’ is really a process:

First we must contemplate and try to feel our G-dly soul (Shma Yisroel). Once we are aware of this soul then we can begin the second step; to feel that G-d is very close, He is ours (HaShem Elokainu). And only then can we truly sense that ‘HaShem Echaud’… He is One and creates everything.

(Which will bring us to fulfill the next sentence; to love him with all our heart, soul and power.)

But all this is only a preparation. The main message of the ‘Shma’ is the belief in the arrival of Moshiach and the certainty that our efforts are hastening it.

Rashi explains that the last four words of the Shma :“G-d is our G-d, G-d is One”, means that now G-d is concealed ( He is only ours) but with the arrival of Moshiach He will be ONE i.e. all the non-Jews will feel and believe in Him also.

Because, continues Rashi, then the truth will be revealed; that there is no other existence, only G-d. (As we say in the end of the Alenu prayer thrice daily) ‘On that day G-d and His Name (i.e. the creation) will be ONE!”

May the Moshiach arrive NOW and, as it says in this week’s Haftorah, doubly comfort G-d’s people; once for each destroyed Temple. He will comfort us a trillion times for all the Jews killed, for all the unanswered prayers, for all the tears and broken hearts. He will comfort us with a symphony of joy and laughter, with the building third Bait HaMikdosh, with the answers to all our problems and with Moshiach NOW!

Copyright © 1999-2017 Rabbi Tuvia Bolton. All rights reserved. No unauthorized reproduction or copying of this material shall occur without prior permission.

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