The following story was relayed to me by Ann Kibbel Schwartz, an educator with whom I worked in Omaha, Nebraska:
So a young student of mine was asked to rise and recite the “Shema” in English. The youngster rose and proudly said: “Hear O Israel; The Lord is our God. The Lord is Two!” I was taken aback, but instead of reprimanding the student, I asked her, “What do you mean, ‘The Lord is Two?’” She replied: “Well, I just turned six, and so I guess God must have had a birthday also by now!”
Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Ekhad!
Probably the most famous of all quotes from the Torah. It is one of the first verses of the Torah learned by the Jew in childhood, and the last verse uttered by the dying. And we read it in this week’s Torah portion of Va-etkhanan: “Hear O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is One!” Jews around the world know these words by heart, but the Rabbis were emphatic about how we must meditate and concentrate on them. The meaning of the verse may appear simple, but in fact, there are many ways to interpret this staple in our daily prayers.
For example, if one were to pick up several Jewish prayerbooks, one would find different translations of the verse:
“Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.”
“Hear O Israel, the Eternal is our God, the Eternal one alone!”
“Listen Israel: Our God is One.”
We take it for granted as Jews that the Shema is simply a statement of ethical monotheism: We accept the existence of the one True God: “Adonai Ekhad” “God is One.”
This is further bolstered by the text, the Kitzur Shulkhan Arukh, which states:
Before we begin reading [the Shema], we should be conscious of the fact that we are about to perform the precept of reading the Shema, as the Holy One, blessed by [God], has commanded us. When we say Shema yisrael (hear, O Israel), we must pay heed to the meaning of the verse, namely, that Adonai, who is our God, is the only One, one and alone in heaven and on earth. We should prolong the sound of the letter khet in the word “ekhad”, so that there be enough time within which to acknowledge the kingdom of the Holy One, blessed be God, in heaven and on earth; and we should also somewhat prolong the sound of the letter dalet, enough time within which to think that the Holy One, blessed be God, is the only one in God’s world and is the Ruler of the four corners of the world (the numerical value of the letter dalet), but we must not prolong the sounds longer than that…
For medieval commentator, Rashi, it is not simply about there being solely one God. Rashi states:
“Adonai who is presently our God and not the God of the nations, will in the future be [recognized] as the One God, as is said, “For then I will turn over to the peoples a pure language that they may all call upon the Name of Adonai.” And it is said, “On that day Adonai will be One and His name One.”
For Rashi, the Shema is about a hope that all will recognize God as the only Divine presence. This hope, found throughout Jewish liturgy and philosophy, reminds us every time the Shema is recited that we pray for all nations to recognize but one God.
Still, if we turn to the text Sefer Ha-aggadah, we see that the sentence “Shema Yisrael…” has a wholly different meaning:
“And Jacob called unto his sons, and said: ‘Gather yourselves together, that I may reveal to you…’” (Gen. 49:1). What Jacob was about to reveal to his sons was when the time of redemption was to come. But the Presence departed from him. So he said, “Could it be, God forbid, that my bed has produced an unfit son—as happened to Abraham, my father’s father, out of whom sprang Ishmael, or as happened to my father Isaac, out of whom sprang Esau?” His sons assured him of their steadfastness: “‘Hear, O Israel [our father], the Lord is our God, the Lord alone’ [Deut. 6:4]. Just as in your heart there is only the One, so in our hearts there is only the One.” Then our father Jacob pronounced for the first time the benediction “Blessed be the Name whose glorious kingdom is forever and ever.”
Hence—it is reported in the name of R. Samuel—every day, morning and evening, Jews say, “In the cave of Machpelah [where you are at rest], ‘Hear, O Israel [our father].’ What you commanded us we still practice: ‘The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.’”
The object of the listening is not all of us as “Israel” the nation, but rather Jacob, whose name was changed to “Israel” upon wrestling with an angel, and why Jews are known as “B’nei Yisarel” or the “Children of Israel.” Jewish tradition states that we recite the Shema before going to bed and when I recite these words to my son, Jacob, at his bedtime, I feel like I re-enact this midrash, as Jacob’s Hebrew name is “Yisrael.” And I sing to him, “Listen, Israel: Remember that God is One.”
But what if we were to read the verse much more literally. The Torah says, “Adonai Ekhad” or “God is One.” What does being “One” mean? There is the obvious Jewish answer that we have been given, that God is the only one—the only God. But what if it were suggested that the verse is providing a theology itself—that the definition of God is a quality of “oneness,” or “wholeness,” or “unity?”
Modern commentator Jacob Weinstein said of this verse:
The Shema “is for the common parenthood of God… the unity of humanity. It is for that diversity found in a family… The Shema says: Hear, thou! God is One; therefore God’s children must be one.”
So for Weinstein, since we are made in the Divine Image, we must act as God: If God is one, so too should we, as a human family, strive to be united in peace.
This notion is reinforced in Kabbalistic theology. The Kabbalah teaches that upon the creation of the world, God became broken, and it is up to humanity to repair God. It is an appealing theology to many who feel like the world in which we live is broken. Even at times when the world joins together, such as the present olympics, we are reminded of brokenness in society, such as the challenges that China faces internally as well as its relationship with her neighbors like Tibet. There continues to be war in the world, hunger, disease. And there will continue to be brokenness until we unite—not just as a Jewish people—but as the human family—and recognize the worlds brokenness and join together towards its repair.
Rabbi Alvin Reines translates the Shema thus: “Hear O Israel: human unity is unity divine.” Reines takes God out of the translation altogether using the reflexive property, “If a = b, then b = a.” A “divine unity” is what we as humans are meant to strive towards. The Shema becomes all more relevant and powerful when we realize it is a charge to all the world, to come together as sisters and brothers. It is not a request, but a demand. It is the social imperative and the spiritual drive. What makes us human and what makes us made in God’s image is what makes us want to connect to our neighbors, not fear or shun them. It is the Shema that will demand us to wake up and fight injustice in the world, where one people subjugates another. All are entitled to a fulfilled humanity, and if one is oppressed, then one is cut off from others. When people are preventing humanity from becoming truly One, they are defying the Divine. It is a matter of breaking down boarders, tearing down walls, seeing people as people and not as races, creeds, religions.
And this is why the Shema begins: “Hear!” We should listen! Really pay attention to the discord which holds our world. And by the end of the verse, when we hear the word, “One!” we should be called to unite—whether in our homes, our neighborhoods, our country or the world. In fact, if you were to read the verse directly from the Torah, or see it printed in our prayerbook, you will notice that there are two letters larger than the others: Ayin and Dalet. These letters spell “Eid” or “Witness.” We should be witnesses to this “unity divine” as Reines calls it. We should not only hear the call, but see—look at each other, look out at the world, bear witness to the atrocities that befall society, and wake up! It is our duty as Jews, as Americans, as human beings, to be responsible for bringing the world together.
We say these words so often: Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Ekhad. And how often do we let their meaning suffuse us? Penetrate us? Move us to be better individuals so that we can make a better world? Every time we say these words, we should stop, think, and be called. When we say, “God is One,” we also need to say, “I will guarantee that.” And when we say, “Hear, O Israel,” we also need to say, “I’m listening.”
Let our ears be clear and open. Let our hearts be ready. And let our bodies now rise as one united family, ready to answer the charge, as we say together: “Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Ekhad.”