Hear O Israel, God our God, God is One
שְׁמָע יִשְׂרָאֵל יְ-הֹוָה אֶ-לֹהֵינוּ יְ-הֹוָה אֶחָד
The Focus of This Book
(FROM THE INTRODUCTION)
There is a well-known Jewish expression which states: “Grab too much – you grab nothing,” tafasta meruba lo tafasta (Succah 5a-b). The meaning of this saying is very clear – when we try to accomplish too much or try to be everything to everyone, we end up accomplishing nothing at all. Being overly ambitious often ends up overshooting the mark and missing the target.
Therefore, in the case of this book we have chosen to narrow our focus in order to offer the reader a relevant selection of short and concise concepts, meditations and intentions meant to enhance their individual experience of reciting the Shema in the context of liturgical prayer.
Yet, perhaps just as important, we sincerely hope the material in this book will also encourage and empower readers to turn the recitation of the Shema into a longer meditative practice wherein the additional time invested will yield tremendously spiritual rewards. This type of longer meditation on the essence of the Shema can in fact be incorporated into one’s daily liturgical prayer practice or occur independently as an informal meditation on the deeper meaning of the Shema and the actuality of God’s Oneness in all its diverse manifestations. This is entirely up to the individual reader and their spiritual needs.
For our specific purposes we have selected only those teachings and insights that we believe will be accessible and inspiring to the largest number of people. In order to accomplish this goal of presenting highly-focused and easily accessible meditations on the Shema, we have included a wide array of philosophical musings, symbolic meanings, and rich insights embedded in the text and gleaned from traditional sources such as the Talmud, Midrash and Jewish law, as well as the more mystical teachings of Kabbalah and Chassidut (teachings of the Chassidic movement). Although we tend to think of saying the Shema as a daily obligation or as a declaration of faith, it needs to be meditated upon deeply in order to reveal the nearly infinite layers of meaning and relevance hidden within its letters and words.
Similar to all formal prayers, saying the Shema daily presents us with the ever-present danger of doing so in a mechanical and thoughtless manner, which can trivialize or neutralize its deeper meanings and profound importance. We hope that this book will assist the reader to find new and unique ways to appreciate the wider scope of possible intentions available when saying the Shema.
We have consciously chosen to keep the intentions short and concise as they are only intended to provide the basic outline of the suggested concepts. It is then up to each individual person to expand and animate the ideas according to their own unique manner.
In this sense, the ideas and intentions provided in this book are meant to serve as springboards into a Divine flow of consciousness wherein new ideas can be conceived and connected to, in the light of revelatory awareness. Each kavanah, or directed thought, stands on its own and can be contemplated for a few seconds at a time, or be made into the focus of a much longer and extended meditation. When the various ideas are experimented with, combined and built upon, the creative possibilities for deeper understanding increase exponentially.
*** FROM THE TEXT ***
The basis of all Jewish thought rests on the foundation of the belief in the absolute Oneness and unity of God. This all-encompassing unity is reflected in the Shema, as well as in many other verses from the Torah. For example:
“You are to know this day and take to your heart that God is the only God, in heaven above and on the earth below – there is none other” (Deuteronomy 4:39).
“To you it was shown [so] that you might know that God is God, there is none else besides Him” (Deuteronomy 4:35).
According to Kabbalistic and Chassidic thought these statements, along with the Shema, are not merely testifying to the Oneness of God, but are in addition stating that in truth there is no reality other than God. The unity of God implies the ultimate unity of all existence.
Four further passages are cited throughout Kabbalistic texts to describe the absolute unity of God and how His Presence encompasses all reality:
“There is no place empty of His Presence” (Tikkunei Zohar; Tikkun 57/91b)
“All that are before Him are thought of as truly naught” (Zohar 1:11b).
“[He] surrounds all worlds” (Zohar 3:225a)
“[He] fills all worlds” (ibid)
It is good to have these verses and phrases in mind when meditating on the Shema as they help create a fuller, more holistic representation of God’s absolute unity.
From the time of Abraham the fundamental mission of the Jewish people has been to reveal the Oneness of God to the world. From everything we know of Abraham, it is obvious that he possessed an unceasing passion and desire to disseminate this knowledge of the greatness of God; to exalt God’s Name; and to reveal His nature and the blessing granted those close to Him. Strikingly, these three goals mirror the three promises God made to Abraham at the beginning of the Torah portion of Lech Lecha: “I will make of you a great nation; I will bless you and make great your Name, and you shall be a blessing” (Genesis 12:2).
In the book of Ezekiel (33:24), Abraham is described by God as being singularly exceptional: “One [unique] was Abraham.” Just as Abraham dedicated himself to spreading the awareness of One God, God similarly responds by calling Abraham “one.” The symbiotic relationship between God and Israel stems from their true love for each other, as each partner’s greatest desire is what is best for their beloved. Reciting the Shema and deeply contemplating God’s Oneness connects us back to the primordial passion and purpose of our father Abraham and mother Sarah, who shared this mission wholeheartedly with Abraham.
The Rebbe of Slonim reads the third verse of the Torah, which describes the creation of light, in a very creative and profoundly revealing manner. The preceding second verse describes how in the beginning there was “darkness on the face of the deep [abyss].” Thus, instead of reading the narrative as a one-time linear occurrence that happened at the beginning of creation alone – “and God said let there be light, and there was light” – he changes the punctuation slightly and with it the entire context to an existential plea of man in the present moment in reaction to the darkness that surrounds him, and the fear and ignorance it represents: “And he [man crying out from the depths of his soul] said – “God! [please] – let there be light” – [to which God responds to man’s plea] “and there was light.”
This same idea applies to the Shema as well. Along with it being a statement of faith, it can also leap from the soul as a heart-felt plea for God to reveal his Oneness: “Hashem Elokeinu” [God, our God] – “Hashem!!” [Please reveal your Oneness in the world and bring the whole world together in peace and harmony to be] “One!!” Even more, it can be taken as a call to action, inspiring a commitment to assist God in transforming the world so that unity can be manifest in the here and now.
The Shema consists of twenty-five letters. This number, in gematria or Hebrew numerology, equals the word koh, “thus,” as in the phrase “koh amar Hashem,” “Thus says God.” We see throughout the Torah that the prophets would reveal their various prophecies by declaring, “Koh/Thus says God.” This numerical equivalence between the letters of the Shema and the numerical value of the word koh reveals a hidden connection between the Shema and prophecy (See Appendix I for more on gematria).
We are taught that the people of Israel are all “prophets and the children of prophets.” Although, according to the rabbis, “official” prophecy ended long ago, prophetic experience and Divine inspiration are still the inheritance of every Jew. Saying the Shema, especially when one meditates deeply on its inner structure and significance, has the power to open one up to the possibility of having a truly prophetic experience, or at the very least, to getting a glimpse or taste of something greater than oneself.
There are a number of fascinating connections between the famous story of David and Goliath and reciting the Shema (1 Samuel; chapter 17). After Goliath publically challenged Israel to send someone to fight against him in a “winner take all” proposition, the text states that Goliath appeared for forty consecutive days in the morning and evening to renew his challenge. The Talmud (Sotah 42a-b) states that the reason he appeared both morning and evening was in order to instill fear and confusion in the ranks of Israel’s army so that they would not say the Shema at its appointed times. Additionally, he appeared for forty days to nullify the merit of Moses receiving the Torah on Sinai during his forty days on the mountain. The same Talmud goes on to explain that if Israel does nothing other than recite the Shema twice a day it would be enough to ensure its victory over all opposition.
We can learn from this that along with all the other mystical meanings of the Shema there is also a practical aspect of the Shema, which is that it is a kind of personal, spiritual and national “battle cry.” The Shema is an inspiring and strengthening declaration that bolsters our determination to face the world on a daily basis and to be victorious in pursuit of our goals and loyal to our purpose in life.
While the word shema means to “hear,” many commentaries explain that this type of hearing does not only mean hearing in a physical sense, it also entails a deep understanding that is integrated within one’s most essential being. Thus, reciting the Shema is not merely a statement or even a proclamation, rather it is a Divine call to the soul to engage itself fully in the moment and to grasp the true depths of God’s Oneness and Israel’s mission in the world.
The three letters of the word shema (shin, mem and ayin; (ש-מ-ע) are, in reverse order, the first three letters of the words in the phrase ol malchut shamayim, (על מלכות שמים) “the yoke of the kingdom of Heaven.” Receiving upon oneself this “yoke” is among the most basic and important intentions when reciting the Shema. For many though, the image of a yoke may seem oppressive or limiting. A common image is of an ox wearing a heavy harness while repressively laboring in a field. Yet one can re-frame this image into something more positive: a labor of love.
In order to receive a bounty of produce one must start by plowing the field, a seemingly thankless task. But realizing that plowing the field will lead to abundant returns can turn even hard and mundane work into a labor of love. How much more so when dealing with transcendent matters where hard work is the key ingredient to any spiritual progress.
When intoning the first word of the Shema, envision yourself lovingly taking on this Divine “yoke” for God’s sake, as well as for the world, which so desperately needs God’s light and love.
Covering the eyes with one’s hand when reciting the Shema is more than a custom, it is enshrined in Jewish law (Shulchan Aruch; Orech Chaim 61:5). The simple explanation for this action is so that nothing will distract a person when saying the Shema. As we learned in the introduction, having kavanah when reciting the Shema is vital to fulfilling the mitzvah, therefore covering one’s eyes will at least help avoid outside distractions. Of course this does not guarantee that the mind will not wander but at least it limits the amount of interference that one might experience while attempting to maintain proper kavanah during their recitation of the Shema.
On a deeper level, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach taught that sometimes when you want to see something really clearly, you need to close your eyes in order to access a much deeper level of reality.
The world we live in is sometimes referred to as olam hashikra, “a world of lies.” To arrive at the truth one must see far beyond the superficial veneer we call reality. Meditating on the Shema is an opportunity to break through the accumulation of crass and shallow skin-deep understandings of modern culture to get to the soul of everlasting and eternal truths.