Hear O Israel, God our God, God is One
שְׁמָע יִשְׂרָאֵל יְ-הֹוָה אֶ-לֹהֵינוּ יְ-הֹוָה אֶחָד
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.
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.
The Ba’al Haturim points out that the Shema begins with the letter shin and ends with the letter dalet, spelling shed, a “destructive spirit or energy.” This, he says, indicates that destructive, negative forces flee from a person who recites the Shema with the proper intentions.
His commentary follows that of the Talmud (Berachot 5a), which states that if a person is not able to vanquish his or her evil inclination they should recite the Shema, as this has the power to subjugate destructive forces. By connecting to the forces of holiness and Hashem’s immediate presence we can conquer any enemy. The Shema is our peaceful weapon against all distraction.
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, (מלכות שמים על) “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.
It is possible to envision the first letter of the word Shema, the shin, as a fiery flame, as its shape is flame-like, reaching upwards. Additionally, the rabbis connect the letter shin to the element of fire, as it is the dominant consonant of the Hebrew word for fire, which is aish.
The shape of the second letter, mem, alludes to a body of water. Additionally, the word for water, mayim, consists of two mems surrounding a middle letter yod, which is reminiscent of a single drop of water.
מ י ם
These two letters – the shin and the mem – thus create an elemental visualization of the all-consuming act of “going through fire and water” for God. Fire and water are both purifying agents that each in their own way removes imperfections from the garment of one’s soul. The Shema, like “going through fire and water,” arouses complete dedication to an ideal for which one is ready to sacrifice everything for, even their very being.
In preparation for meeting his estranged brother after twenty years Jacob sends gifts to Esau to appease him, prays to God to protect him, and divides his camp in two to prepare for war. Jacob is then left alone during the night and fights with a “man” (or angel) until dawn. When the “man” realizes that he cannot defeat Jacob, he strikes his thigh, thus injuring him. Still, even though he asks Jacob to let him go, Jacob refuses until the “man” blesses him. As part of this blessing, Jacob is given a new Name, Yisrael: “No longer will your Name be called Jacob, but Israel (Yisrael), for you have wrestled with God and man and you have prevailed” (Genesis 32:29).
The first time a word is introduced in the Torah it becomes the “headquarters” or fundamental context within which to understand the word and all its future ramifications. The Name Yisrael, as it is used here, is based on the verb to contend with or to struggle against in the most positive sense. Yisrael thus represents supreme effort that leads to advancement, progress and growth, whether on the material or spiritual planes of existence.
When saying Shema Yisrael we should strengthen ourselves in the moment and throughout our day to be in a pro-active mental stance, ready to reach new levels of understanding and experience, regardless of what obstacles stand in our way.
A major Kabbalistic and Chassidic concept describing the dynamic of all life is called “run and return” (ratzo v’shov), a phrase taken from the prophet Ezekiel’s “Vision of the Chariot” (Ma’aseh Merkavah). The following verses taken from this mystical vision form the basis of this concept:
“As for the likeness of the living creatures, their appearance was like coals of fire, burning like the appearance of torches; it flashed up and down among the living creatures; and the fire was hot and out of the fire went forth lightning. And the living creatures ran and returned like the appearance of a flash of lightning” (Ezekiel 1:13-14).
The “run and return” dynamic is employed in Kabbalah and Chassidut to describe the pulse of life and existence manifest in countless ways throughout creation: from the contraction and expansion at the very origins of the universe to the pulse of blood running through our veins; from the cycles of the seasons to the ebb and flow of the tides; from the exhalation and inhalation of breath to the psychological and historical processes of exile and redemption; from the give and take of relationships to the cycle of life and death itself.
When coming to the words “Hashem Elokeinu” in the Shema the soul instinctively “runs” towards the Presence of God. Subsequently, when focused on the words “Hashem echad” we concentrate on the critical aspect of “return” in order to integrate our peak experience positively, and more importantly, to fulfill the task of making this world a dwelling place for God.
Thus, the Shema serves as a daily exercise in the dynamic of running and returning and the important psychological and emotional equilibrium it represents. The soul, on the one hand, “runs,” seeking to reunite with God and its Divine source; while, on the other hand, it is ultimately meant to “return” to the earthly realm in order to fulfill its purpose in this world. Both tendencies need to be carefully nurtured and balanced.
Most people either actively squelch the fire in their soul for a host of psychological and emotional reasons, or passively find the fire put out by the ongoing challenges and doldrums of daily life. Subsequently, they often become overly wrapped up in the world’s materialism and self-centeredness, forgetting their soul’s innate desire to fly free and transcend its limitations.
Though less common, some people are overly connected to the spiritual realms or the thrill of the “run,” and thus lack the ability to “return” back down to earth in order to function productively on a day-to-day basis. The Shema represents a perfect balance of allowing the soul to express its deepest longing to “run” towards God, as it were, while also creating a vessel for the soul’s “return” to fulfill its mission in this world.
The numerical equivalents of the three letters (alef, chet and dalet) of echad – 1,8,4 respectively – are considered to comprise a basic kavanah: visualize drawing down God who is One (alef), through the seven heavens and earth (7 & 1 = 8; chet), where His Oneness spreads out and is manifest to the four directions (dalet) (Shulchan Aruch; Orech Chaim 61:5).
A complementary teaching in Chassidut is that when the soul comes into this world it undergoes a very similar process of descent. The individual soul (1), when the time is deemed appropriate descends through the same basic (8) levels or dimensions of reality until it enters into a body in this physical world and begins to move about and manifest in all (4) directions.
Therefore, saying the Shema is not only a potent prayer to draw down God’s Oneness into this material world, but is also a powerful practice for drawing down the soul’s heavenly root into active consciousness.
The Large Letters:
Ayin and Dalet
ד – ע
In the Torah scroll, sometimes a letter will appear either larger or smaller than normal. This relatively rare occurrence indicates that we should take special notice of some hidden teaching or idea. In the Shema the letter ayin of the word Shema and the letter dalet of the word echad are both written large. When discussing this phenomenon above we focused on each letter separately. In this section we will elaborate on the meaning of both letters together. This, in fact, is the only time in the entire Tanach where there are two large letters in one verse.
שְׁמָע יִשְׂרָאֵל יְ-הֹוָה אֶ-לֹהֵינוּ יְ-הֹוָה אֶחָד
The letters ayin and dalet together spell the word ayd, “witness.” The fact that these letters are written large informs us that the mission of the Jewish people is to bear witness to the truth of One God, as the prophet states: “You are my witnesses” (Isaiah 43:10).
This has been the mission of the Jewish people from the time of Abraham and will continue until all mankind recognizes and integrates this reality, as discussed in the very first chapter. Another verse states: “God’s testimony is within you” (I Samuel 12:5).
When the two letters ayin and dalet are reversed they spell dah, “know.” Although the Shema is often referred to as the cardinal statement of faith in Judaism, it is not a blind faith divorced from intellect or reason, but rather a faith based on our most fundamental observations and experiences of reality. This is a critical point to consider when one assesses their deepest beliefs and world-view. The merging of faith and knowledge is what has sustained and empowered the Jewish people for millennia.
Contemplate this immense privilege and responsibility and feel it in the depths of your soul when saying the Shema.