In this week’s parsha, Va-et’chanan, Moses continues his final instructions to the Israelites. He begins first by pleading to God to allow him to enter the Land of Israel, but is only refused. Moses then turns to the Israelites to remind them that God had given them laws and commandments to live by when they entered Israel. They are to obey them faithfully and to teach them to their children. He reminds them of when they stood at the foot of Horeb. The skies were ablaze filled with the densest clouds, and God commanded them to observe the commandments and avoid making or worshipping idols. Moses warns that failure to follow God’s commandments will result in them being driven from Israel and scattered amongst the nations. He continues to recite the Ten Commandments and again reminds the people of the fear they felt when standing at the foot of the mountain. Then comes those important six words. Moses tells his people, Hear, O Israel: Adonai is our God, Adonai is One. You shall love the eternal your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day. Impress them upon your children. Recite them when you are at home and when you are away. Bind them between your eyes and inscribe them on the doorposts of your home. To parents he adds, “When your child asks, what is the meaning of these laws and commandments? explain, We were slaves in Egypt and God freed us…that we might be given the land promised to our ancestors. We are to observe these commandments for our survival.” Moses finishes by reminding the Israelites those who observe the commandments will be rewarded and those who don’t will suffer destruction.
Of the 4,875 versus in Torah, the six words of the Shema stand out as the code of faith for Jews. Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad! Hear, O Israel: Adonai is our God, Adonai is One! These are without a shadow of a doubt the best-known words in Judaism’s liturgy. They are among the first words taught to a young child and the words recited at the time of death. But something about these words confuses me. Why would Moses have to instruct the Israelites that God is one? Hasn’t this been said over and over again throughout the Torah? Nachmanides sees in the words of the Shema a very personal statement by Moses. He points out that, in most other cases where Moses uses the words, “Hear O Israel,” he follows them with “Adonai your God,” not with “Adonai our God”. Nachmanides asks why in this particular situation Moses chose to say our God? Nachmanides speculates that Moses is concerned with appearances. God has liberated the people from slavery, has provided for their needs in the desert, and has given them the ten commandments. Now, in reminding the people of all God has done, Moses does not want to exclude himself. In declaring God’s unity with words of the Shema, he makes it clear that he is including himself as a witness to God’s goodness and power. His interpretation comes from the actual text the last letter, ayin, of the first word of the Shema and last letter, dalet, of the last word are enlarged. Combined, the letters spell ed, meaning witness. In reciting the Shema, Jews can bear witness to God’s unity and power.
Modern commentator Rabbi Shlomo Riskin analyzed the Hebrew words Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad and notes that two words are used for God. The first is Adonai and the second is Eloheinu. Early Jewish tradition, according to Riskin, associates God’s qualities of mercy and love with the Adonai and God’s qualities of judgment with Elohim. He maintains that when Moses first spoke with the words of the Shema, he meant to clarify a significant problem faced by the Israelites and by all people as well. The problem of understanding God’s unity and the way God works in our lives and in the universe. When something goes well we attribute this to the good nature of God. But when we experience pain, either emotional or physical, we feel the inexplicable power of God. The message of the Shema, Riskin adds, “is that, if our eyes and ears were truly opened, we would comprehend that everything in the world, both the things we think of as being clearly good and those other things that frighten us with their might, emerges from a compassionate and loving God.” In other words, Adonai is One.
I am not sure if the commentaries I read even talked about in this message completely answer my question of why Moses would need to instruct the Israelites again that Adonai is One. Recently on a talk radio station I regularly listen to, a sportscaster was asked to explain and clarify what a particular set of football players do. He spoke for five or so minutes of on the basic rules of game, coaching philosophy and even variations on defensive formation but not once did he answer the caller’s question. I bring this up because I think it’s easy to get an answer to a question and for the person asking the question to accept what they hear as the truth. What needs to happen in the case of the Shema is a personal connection that brings the words to life. When you participate in Friday night worship and the Shema is recited; it is only as powerful as you allow it to be. Sometimes it’s easy to just go along with the service, recite what is being sung and then go off and enjoy the remainder of your evening. But next time you are engaged in prayer, think about the words that are repeated week in and week out. Each time you recite them, you are making a stronger connection with God and the Jewish people.