It’s hard to resist a good motto or slogan. They are pearls of wisdom expressible in tweet or bumper sticker length. Simplicity paired with profundity. People, businesses, universities, and even states and countries all have slogans that attempt to solidify and communicate their identity.
When it comes to religion, there are a myriad of quotable phrases in every sect which can range from memorable to down right life changing. But as inspiring as those quotes are, they don’t encapsulate the religion as a whole. I mean, what slogan could possibly embody the themes and statutes of a whole religion? Then Judaism comes along and cleanly declares its slogan loud and clear.
“Shema Yisroel, Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Echad.”
Translated usually as Hear O’ Israel, The Lord is our God, the Lord is one, the slogan of the Jewish people has been and always will be the Shema. But why is that sentence the slogan that we say every morning and every evening? Aren’t there other ideas that are tantamount to Judaism? Why not the 10 Commandments? Love thy neighbor, maybe? Study Torah? And if we are going with the One God thing, why not make the slogan just Hashem Echad?
Hear Yee, Hear Yee…
So what’s with the “Hear O’ Israel” stuff? Are we supposed to be harkening back to the days when we had town criers? It helps if we look at the Hebrew (as usual). The word Shema is often translated as hear or listen. But the better translation would be to understand or internalize. We are being commanded to make the following rest of the slogan a part of our core being. Now you know why it might be helpful to say it every evening and morning.
A redundant deity.
Before studying Torah, one of the things I found silly in the Bible was the seemingly redundant phrase, The Lord, your God. That’s because English translations almost always miss an important nuance; God’s name. The Torah has dozens of names for God, each one reflecting a different aspect of God in that particular instance the name is mentioned. They range from judge, to master of creation, to even feminine aspects.
The listed above, Hashem is actually a place holder (Hashem just translates to The Name). When one actually says the Shema, they say one of the holiest names for God. If you’ve ever said a brucha (Baruch ata…) that third word is would be that name. For teaching’s sake, I’ll refer to it as Adon’. The spelling of that name is a combination of the Hebrew words, He was, He is, and He will be. So when we say the Shema, there is a particular acknowledgement of the eternity of God.
Elokeinu is a statement that Hashem is our God. Which may seem like a given. But with the frustrations and difficulties of life, one can either forget or downright run from this idea. This section of the Shema demands that we remind ourselves of that by declaration.
One God. Someone’s got jealousy issues.
We get it. There’s one God. What’s the big deal? This is where the big distinction comes between the Jewish understanding of God and most other religions. It’s not that there is one God, but that God is One. God isn’t some old man in the sky, but a being with no distinct parts, no physicality. Infinite with no boundaries. That includes events, luck, even the bad. Where Christianity made God the source of good and Satan the source of evil, Judaism makes no distinction. And there is a mitzvah to recognize this oneness of Hashem, a physical action to mold our perspective understand this. Talk to any Rabbi about the Hashem Echad and you’ll get them talking for hours. But for brevity’s sake, I’ll just say that Hashem being one is both the core and goal of all of Torah. It’s the first and second commandment and is also a constant mitzvah (a mitzvah that one has the opportunity to fulfill every second of their life. )
Say that again?
One last notion on this topic. Judaism recognizes that there is a distinction between thought, speech, and action. When an idea is swarming around in your head, amorphous as a vague sentiment, it may seem perfectly clear and true. But when it comes to time express to someone that idea, you come to realize how muddy it is. To put an idea into words brings it into this world. Bottled up feelings finally spoken can change a person. That’s why when one does teshuva (Jewish redemption) part of process is to say the “I did x and it was wrong.” It gives it reality which then the person has to either live with or deal with. As much is just as true for the Shema. That’s why we speak it twice every day.