The basic declaration of Jewish faith - Shema Yisrael – appears in this week’s parsha. This affirmation of the core principle of Jewish faith – the uniqueness and oneness of God coupled with our acceptance of God’s sovereignty over us – according to Jewish tradition was first uttered by the children of Yaakov at the time of his passing from this life to a better world.
Throughout Jewish history, this became the final prayer of Jews passing from this life as well. It also became, because of our long and bitter history of physical persecution and martyrdom, the symbol of Jewish tenacity and commitment.
When a Jew enters the world and is old enough to first speak, the words first uttered are, Torah tzivah lanu Moshe (Moshe has commanded us regarding the Torah.) But, after life has been lived, with all of its differing experiences, one of the last words that a Jew recites are Shema Yisrael.
Torah is intellect and a way of life, commandments, ritual and custom. Torah is particular and not general, parochial and not universal. It is the stuff of this world and its complexities, challenges, disappointments. Faith - the Shema Yisrael statement – is the stuff of eternity, of the better world, of a transcendent relationship with the Creator of us all.
It is universal and its message is directed to all, Jew and non-Jew, scholar and unlettered alike. Faith and belief alone, without actions and observances, is not sufficient for Jewish life to exist. But actions and observances without faith and belief eventually become meaningless, if not even hypocritical.
A Jew is bidden to recite Shema Yisrael twice daily, with fervor and concentration. One is to actually think about the words that one is reciting when saying the prayer. The rabbis called the Shema Yisrael a declaration - “the acceptance of the yoke of Heaven.” In a world of idols and paganism, this declaration is what sets the Jewish people apart from the rest of the nations of the time.
In our world devoid of actual paganism but without faith and moral direction this declaration again stands as the line of separation between the Jew and the general society. The recitation of Shema Yisrael regularly, twice daily, over and over again, carefully and lovingly with correct pronunciation, serves to reemphasize to us God’s presence in our lives and in our world. It serves to remind us that we are not necessarily the free agents in life that we often think that we are.
Shema Yisrael inhibits our thoughts and behavior even if just for the moment. It focuses our hearts and minds on the good and noble that lies within each one to achieve and accomplish. And perhaps just as importantly it serves to unite us with all of the past generations of Jews, all of the way back to our father Yaakov and his children, to the origins of Shema Yisrael itself. When we recite Shema Yisrael it is as if we are speaking directly to our father Yaakov, to Yisrael himself. There can be no greater comforting thought for us on this Shabat of consolation than this reality of the bond of Jewish life over all of these centuries.
Rabbi Berel Wein