Rabbi Yosef Edelstein
August 7th-8th, 1998, 16 Av, 5758
Present-day physicists dream of discovering a "final theory" that can explain
all known natural forces, from subatomic cohesion to interplanetary gravitation. An
alluring quest: to find the two or three equations that, literally, sum it ALL up. I
have a strong feeling that the one who ultimately discovers these fundamental laws of
nature will be Jewish, just as it was a Jew (Einstein) who completely recast modern man's
understanding of the universe.
Ethnocentrism, you say? I think not. It's just a part of our spiritual makeup.
We Jews just know that everything in this universe fits together, that there is a
unity underlying the multiplicity we see around us. After all, it's the ancient
watchword of our faith, known even to the least observant member of our people (and
uttered a couple of times a day by many of the rest of us); it also happens to be a verse
in this week's parsha. "Shema Yisrael, Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Echad--Hear, O
Israel, Hashem is our G-d, Hashem is One." (6, 4)
This is the fundamental law of nature, the equation that sums it all up--the final theory.
Let's have a closer look.
The word, shema, means "hear," in the sense
of understanding and meditating on the statement that is to follow (Sforno). Rabbi
Samson Raphael Hirsch, zt'l, points out, in fact, that our nation's acquaintance with the
Creator is not based on hearing, but on seeing; the generation that left Egypt, walked
through the sea on dry land, and stood at Mt. Sinai directly and unequivocally witnessed
G-d's complete and sole rulership over the universe. Moshe himself tells the Jewish people
earlier in this parsha, "You have been shown in order to know that Hashem, He is the
G-d! There is none besides Him." (4, 35) That generation was blessed to
experience open Revelation for a good reason:
"...so that it could be a means of conviction from generation to generation, from
community to community, and remain by direct tradition the indisputable basis on which,
for all eternity, every son of Israel has to build up all his thinking and doing.
Henceforth, it does not say, 'See, O Israel,' but, 'Hear, O Israel.'" (
Hirsch, Commentary on the Torah: Volume 5, p. 89)
The Shema is our declaration of faith, yet it is clearly something more: it actually
"represents knowledge through tradition." (Rabbi Elie Munk in The Call of
the Torah: Volume 5, p. 66) We know of G-d through our ancestors' experience, and
the Shema is a daily summons to reflect on--to hear--that knowledge.
Read on its simplest level (pshat), the verse of Shema Yisrael is a denial of polytheism,
an affirmation that there is only One G-d who rules the universe. (A revolutionary idea in
its time and beyond, let's not forget.) But the wording seems awkward: why doesn't
it just read, "Hashem, our G-d, is One?" Why is the word,
"Hashem," repeated? To answer this, we need to go to a deeper level of textual
Rashi paraphrases a Midrash to explain the verse as follows: "Hashem, who is our G-d
now--embraced by the Jewish people--will, in the future, be Hashem echad--
accepted as One G-d by the entire world." Two apparently opposing concepts are
quite beautifully welded together in the midrashic reading of the verse: the uniqueness
(or "chosenness") of Israel as the collective herald of pure monotheism in
history, and the universalism of the messianic future, when all mankind will follow the
people's lead in accepting the Oneness of G-d.
The Shema is not abstract philosophy: although it may
give us the purely intellectual thrill of realizing that all seeming opposites have One
source, it can (most importantly) help us live righteously. How? Rabbi Hirsch
explains that an awareness of G-d's Unity should lead us to a unity of purpose in our own
"Just as the world, with all its variety...has its origin in the one source, is
guided by one hand, serves One Being and strives upwards towards this One; so must you
recognize and feel your life with all its changes to issue from one source, to be guided
by one hand, to flow towards one goal. You must comprehend your life with all
its diversity as
proceeding from this One and you must direct it towards this One, in order that your life
be a unity just as your G-d is One...Strive to reach this One, and be in your heart as
Your G-d is one." (Horeb, p. 6)
Moreover, the knowledge that everything comes from
Hashem, and that we, therefore, are completely His in body, mind and spirit, leads us
quite naturally to the next verse in the Torah: "And you shall love the Lord, Your
G-d, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might [resources.]"
(Munk, p. 67) G-d's unity is the basis for our obligation to love Him!
Obligation to love, you might ask in passing? How
can we be commanded to love G-d? The answer is simple: the great Chassidic
commentator, Sfas Emes explains that we all, naturally, have the seeds of this love inside
us. After all, He is our G-d, the Source of all we have, our Father in Heaven.
What we must do on our end, though, is nurture and bring out that love, to perform
actions (mitzvos) that lead us closer to Him. The commandment to love G-d, then, is
really an injunction to develop--and not hinder--the love that is already there.
Sfas Emes goes on to suggest that this is why Parshas
Vaeschanan is always read on Shabbos Nachamu, the first Shabbos of consolation after the
mourning of Tisha b'Av. "Comfort, comfort (nachamu), My people--says Your G-d,"
are the words of the prophet, Isaiah, in this week's Haftarah; the fact that He is our
G-d--which leads us to love Him--is, by itself, enough to console us for all the troubles
we've endured as a people. (Troubles which, ultimately, have the purpose of bringing us
closer to Him...but that's for another parsha sheet.)
May we all meditate on the meanings of the Shema this
Shabbos, and truly hear its stirring message.
Insights Into Genesis
Insights Into Exodus
Edelstein is Director of the Savannah Kollel/ Savannah Torah Education Project. Phone:
fax: 354-9923; e-mail address: Yosef18@aol.com
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