Yesterday, my daughter Avigayil came by with my 21-month-old grandson Amit, for a visit. He was being especially cooperative in letting her “run him through his paces”, happily showing off his latest learned tricks. As soon as she started singing “The Wheels on the Bus”, he called out ‘beep beep beep’, skipping to the next verse of the song. We walked outside and he walked near the curb and wagged his finger seriously at the street saying, “Nooo. Not allowed!” When Avigayil put his hand a few inches from my cup of coffee, he pulled away and dramatically whispered, ‘Hot!’
I enjoyed watching my daughter almost as much as I enjoyed watching Amit. I saw pride in her face… joy… adoration… emotions I was sure was reflected in my own face. The miracle of his amazing little mind being able to recognize and remember; to steadily acquire new vocabulary, and even to grasp concepts like danger and fear… right and wrong.
And then Avigyail got to his next trick and I melted. She only had to begin the words “Oh, Lord, Loyal King” and Amit automatically stuck out his small right hand and covered those light-filled eyes of his. He started moving his lips as if in silent meditation as Avigayil said the words of the Shema prayer aloud for him: ‘Hear Oh Israel, the Lord is our G-d, the Lord is One.’
My daughter and I locked eyes, and I can only describe the feeling we shared as gratitude. Gratitude that this third generation child was showing signs of being ready to join the ranks of yet another of G-d’s people who choose to communicate with Him through prayer.
The Shema prayer is the first prayer a baby is exposed to. There is a Jewish tradition, that on the night before a baby boy’s circumcision ceremony on his eighth day, little children are invited to come and gather around his bassinet, to sing the words of the Shema, beseeching the angels to watch over him. While still a baby, he is held in his parents’ arms every night, bottle, pacifier and blanket at the ready, as the words of the nighttime Shema are softly said for him as he is lulled to sleep. Soon, he learns to go through the motions by rote, and only later he says the age-old words on his own. There is nothing quite so moving as watching a room- full of kindergarteners covering their eyes and singing out sweetly together, the words of the Shema.
Interesting, how this prayer is the prayer most uttered, most well-known in the Jewish liturgy. We are explicitly commanded in the Bible to say the Shema “…when you retire and when you arise” (Deuteronomy 6:5-9). It is said during both the Morning Prayer service, the evening service, and again, with variations, as we drift off to sleep. It is also the same prayer that people find on their lips as they prop themselves up for one last lucid moment on their deathbeds… and it is the same prayer that persecuted Jews said as they were led to the Inquisition or marched off to the gas chambers during the Holocaust. Chilling.
The Shema begins with the famous verse: “Hear Oh Israel, the Lord is our G-d, the Lord is One.” It doesn’t sound like a typical prayer. To whom are we speaking? To ourselves? To G-d? In a way the prayer is a sort of proclamation, a declaration of faith, a calling to arms to our brethren, to our own people, to accept G-d as our G-d, as the only G-d. It is almost the Jewish Pledge of Allegiance, as we accept, humbly and gratefully, Divine rule, the burden of the majesty of Heaven.
Embodied in the Shema is one of the most profound and mystical concepts known to man: the Oneness of God. And the Shema is a testimony to G-d’s oneness. If you look at the words of Shema in a prayer book or in the verses referring to it in the Bible, you can see that the last letter “Ayin” of the first word and the last letter of the last word “Daled”, are slightly enlarged, spelling out the Hebrew word for witness. And that’s what saying this prayer does—it bears witness to the principle, upon which our whole religion is based, that we know G-d is the one and only G-d, and we have a duty to lead pure lives in order to serve that principle. The first verse of the Shema demands more concentration than the rest of the prayer. It is customary to close and cover your eyes with the palm of your hand while reciting it, to eliminate every distraction and help you concentrate on the meaning of the words. The other time in Jewish tradition that one’s eyes are specifically closed is upon death. The rabbis have discussed that just as at the end of days we will come to understood how even the “bad” was actually for the “good,” so too while saying the Shema we strive for that level of belief and understanding. We are meant to come to the realization that everything that happens to us—good or bad—came from the One, the only G-d.
This verse of the Shema has traditionally been said during times of intense emotion. The Talmud says that when Jacob was about to reveal the end of days to his children, he was concerned that one of them might be a non-believer. His sons reassured him by crying out, “Shema Yisrael!” The Torah records Moses including the Shema in his farewell address to the Jewish people, knowing he was about to die, knowing they would enter the Promised Land without him. Today, this first line of the Shema is an integral part of our liturgy. We sing it before the Holy Ark, after taking out the Torah Scrolls, every Sabbath and festival, as we prepare to read from the Torah. And we cry out the words of Shema at the end of the holiest day of Yom Kippur, the Day of Repentance, when we hope we have reached the level of angels.
The first paragraph of the Shema continues: “And you shall love the Lord your G-d, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your resources.” It’s hard to be commanded to love. The rabbis suggest, though, that all we really have to do is contemplate G-d’s wondrous creations and we will be filled with love for Him. The hardest part to understand, though, is what it means to love G-d with all our soul. The story is told of Rabbi Akiva, the great Talmudic scholar, who continued teaching his disciples the Torah, even though the Romans had forbidden it. When he was caught, he was sentenced to a painful death. The Romans took a large iron comb and began to scrape off his flesh. Rabbi Akiva, in a voice full of faith and love, started saying the words of the Shema. His students stood by, in helpless horror, and he explained to them, “All my life I was never able to fulfill the commandment to ‘love G-d with all you soul’. Until now.” As he finished the words of the prayer, his soul left him and he died.
Of course we are not commanded to die in order to fulfill the words, but we should love G-d so much that we would be willing to give up our lives for Him. Perhaps this is why Jews customarily say this prayer before they die.
Seth Mandel, the father of 13-year-old Koby Mandel, who was bludgeoned to death in a cave by Arab terrorists, spoke at a massive pro-Israel rally in Washington DC in April 2002. He told the story of his son’s futile death. And then he turned to the crowd with a heartbreaking request:
“My son Koby died alone. I didn’t have the chance to say the Shema with him. So now I want you to help me say the Shema for the hundreds of Jews who have been killed in violence. Say the Shema with me in their merit. And say the Shema with me in the merit of my son Koby.” He then led the crowd of 250,000 in reciting the Shema.
Another story. Another father:
The place was the recovery room in the Intensive Care Unit of Shaarei Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem. It was just 24 hours after the suicide bomber terrorist attack at the Sbarro pizza restaurant in central Jerusalem which killed 15 people. A father watched his daughter, her body bruised and battered after a surgery that restored her life. She whispered weakly:
“Daddy, what about that family that was right in front of us in line for pizza? What happened to them?” The father knows what family she was talking about. Both parents and all three children were killed. She asks again and I ask her why she remembered that family. She explained that when the terrible explosion of the bomb happened, those children were seriously injured, actually burning in flames. The four year old, a boy named Abraham Isaac, lay on the ground bleeding burning and dying, and he cried out, ‘Abba, Daddy, please help me…save me!’ His father reached over from where he had fallen, and held his little boy’s hand. And together they said the words of the Shema as their last breaths left their bodies.
And this father in the hospital room, himself the almost sole survivor of a family that was destroyed in the Holocaust, who grew up on spine-chilling stories of the Shema that the Jews said before they were led to slaughter, had to tell his daughter that the burning of the crematoriums and the flames of the pizza store had become one… joined by the holy victims whose only sin was being part of the Chosen People.
The first paragraph of Shema continues, with stressing our duty to teach Torah to our children, to talk of Torah always, and to put on phylacteries and place a mezuzah in our homes:
“You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Deuteronomy 6:7-9).
The words of the Shema are contained in the parchment within the mezuzah that we affix to the doorposts of our homes, and in the phylacteries that we bind to our arm and head. While praying, we wear phylacteries as a visible sign that God is close to our hearts and close to our brains, to show that our thoughts and emotions are directed toward God. The mezuzah shows that we are secure in God’s presence, and welcome him, always, as part of our households, where we try to incorporate His holy ways.
The Shema is who we are. It is ingrained in our hearts, our histories, our homes… our souls and our memories. Everyone has a Shema story and here is one more.
A woman sits with her grandchild at bedtime, ready to recite the Shema with her, to help her go to sleep feeling loved and protected through the wonderful three- minute ancient routine. But today, she first has a story to tell:
The story began when she was four years old. WW II had begun and her mother smuggled her into a monastery in Lithuania, hoping the nuns would hide her little Jewish girl until after the war. “I will return”, she promised. “But meanwhile, remember you are a Jew, daughter of the Chosen Nation. They will teach you the ways of a new religion. During the day, keep your Judaism hidden from those who wish to destroy your people. But at night, allow your pure Jewish soul to turn to G-d with the words of the Shema and He will send angels to watch over you.”
The mother never returned. But the girl didn’t forget her words. And every night, she would huddle under her cover and mumble the words of her people. One night a man came into the room where the girls slept. “He was tall and wore a black hat. He turned to the nuns, standing at the doorway and said he had come for the Jewish children. It was time to take the Jewish children home. He had to find out who we were. He stood on a chair and turned to us in our beds. And with tears running down his cheeks into his long white beard, he started reciting the Shema. I found myself joining in and soon I heard Patricia and Annette and Miriam, from the beds nearby, haltingly reciting the words, too. All of us with Jewish souls joined in. We ran up to him, surrounded him. And so, with hands joined, with tears and song, we left the monastery with this man who returned us home to our land.”
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