Which Jew has not heard of the Shema? The Shema, the affirmation of the oneness of G-d, that appears in this week’s Torah reading, is one of the first prayers a Jewish child is taught to recite and is often the last words uttered by a dying person. We are Biblically commanded to recite the Shema every morning and evening and the rabbis added on the obligation to recite the Shema before we go to bed.
To better appreciate the Shema let us analyze each of its six Hebrew words.
Shema - The Hebrew word Shema is usually translated as “hear.” But, it is odd that Moses would tell the Jews to just hear that G-d is our G-d. A more precise translation would be “understand.” This underscore the idea that it does not suffice to believe that G-d is our G-d and that He is one — we must try to rationally comprehend it, reflect and meditate on it.
Yisrael (Israel) - The word Yisrael is one of the many names that are used to identify members of the Jewish people. This name was the second name the Patriarch Jacob was given. Our sages tell us that the two names, Jacob and Israel, are representative of two modes of spiritual expression. The name Jacob — which derives from the word “heel” — describes our state of being when we are constrained by conditions that were set upon us by the outside world. Israel — that comprises the words “master” and “head” — describes the mindset of Jewishness that allows us to be the masters of our environment rather than being led and controlled by it.
Thus, the combined two words “Shema Yisrael (Hear o Israel) can now be reinterpreted to mean that one must reflect on the concepts (contained within the Shema prayer) in order to rise to the level and mindset of Israel, one who is not a victim of his environment, but a controller of it.
Hashem - The word Hashem means “the name” and is used in place of G-d’s unique name, known as the Tetragramaton. Contained within this name are the three words Haya (past), hoveh (present) and Yihyeh (future). Our sages explain that this name of G-d describes Him as a power that transcends the boundaries of time. From G-d’s perspective, past, present and future are experienced simultaneously, because G-d is essentially beyond the limitations of time. The Shema attunes us to this reality that G-d is absolutely above and beyond the constraints of nature, even the constraints of time.
Elokeinu - This word translates as “our G-d.” However, a more precise translation would yield the following: “G-d is our internal force and power.” Combined with the preceding words, this sentence now yields a new meaning. “In order to achieve the status of Israel and gain mastery over one’s environment, one must reflect on the notion that G-d’s transcendent essence is not detached from us, but is our very strength and power. We must always realize that our life is not a natural one, but one that derives from that aspect of G-d that transcends the bounds of time and space.”
By realizing that our power is not just divine but that it is beyond all the parameters that are associated with creation, we will not be intimidated by the natural barriers that sometimes seem to inhibit our spiritual growth.
Hashem Echad - These last two words go even further. Not only do we have to recognize that the transcendent aspect of G-d is a part of our individual identities as Jews, we must realize that that is the essence of the entire universe. Even if it is not apparent now, we affirm in the Shema that ultimately G-d will be one. This means that, ultimately the entire universe will feel that there is nothing else but G-d’s transcendent existence that gives life to all. “G-d is one” in this context means that not only is there no other G-d, but, moreover, there is nothing else but G-d!
Indeed, the Talmud expounds on the fact that the Hebrew word Echad (one) is a composite of three letters, that suggest that G-d’s unity pervades all the dimensions of space, the spiritual realms as well as the physical.
And despite the fact that this notion of unity has yet to have entered the consciousness of the Jewish people, Moshiach will be the one to usher in an age when this will be common knowledge. Indeed, Rashi — the most basic of all the commentators — tells us that this is the most simple meaning of the Shema. He translates it this way: “Hear O Israel, the L-rd who is presently only our G-d (only recognized and appreciated by us), will eventually (through Moshiach) be recognized as the One and only G-d, by all.”
Let us now repeat the Shema in its entirety in light of the foregoing exposition:
“For a Jew to attain mastery over the world of nature, s/he must reflect on the transcendent G-dly energy that is the core of one’s existence. By focusing on this we will ultimately hasten the time when the entire world will declare that there is but one G-d who is the essence of all that exists.”