Not long ago I explored the ideas surrounding the Shema, the mantra that distills the essence of Judaism down to a six word slogan.
“Shema Yisroel, Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Echad”
But it’s this week’s parsha Va’eschanan where the Torah actually gives the iconic saying. There’s so much about those six words, I’m sure books have been written about their deep and esoteric significance. But a quick explanation is that the key is to internalize that Hashem is your personal god, and that Hashem is EVERYTHING. Now that’s a tremendous level to embody. But once you gain some understanding of it, what do you DO with it?
With that the Torah continues on with the following paragraph;
And you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your means. And these words, which I command you this day, shall be upon your heart. And you shall teach them to your children and speak of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk on the way, and when you lie down and when you rise up. And you shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for ornaments between your eyes. And you shall inscribe them upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates. (Devarim 6: 5-9)
All You Need is Love
Known as the “Ve’ahavta,” (lit. and you shall love) all sources agree that in order to fulfill the mitzvah of saying Shema twice a day, at the minimum this paragraph must be recited along with the main six words proceeding it. Though most rabbis hold that you then need to also recite two additional paragraphs, but that’s for another blog post.
So when we understand that God is One and everything, what does that do for us? Are we just some experiment for God? Some bizarre fascination or game?
Of course not. And we know that with this opening line. As you focus on this first line, “And you shall love the Lord, your God…” it is important to know that the way we treat God is the way God treats us (Tehillim 121:5 “God is your shadow”). When we love God, we feel God’s love back. (Note: God doesn’t stop loving us if we don’t love Him, we just feel it in such a way.) Now apply that to “God is everything” and we learn that everything that happens to us is for our benefit.
How Much Can You Love?
“With all your heart, with all your soul, with all your means…”
The word for heart in Hebrew is לב or lav, but here we see it spelled לבב with two ב. Many rabbis say that this actually translates to hearts, recognizing that we have two aspects to our heart (or two hearts as it were). The yetzer tov (good inclination) and the yetzer hara (evil inclination). When we identify with our yetzer hara we often experience shame and allow it to distance us from God. But when we realize that God gave us that very inclination to overcome, that through that mastering of ourselves we actually become our best selves, that’s how we become closest to God. Loving with both aspects of ourselves connects us to Him on the deepest of levels.
All our soul, or nafshecah (נַפְשְׁךָ֖) is probably the most esoteric of concepts in this whole paragraph. Most of us don’t even know how to identify with our soul outside of meditation. So the best way to think about this concept is through our intellect. Our minds are our most intimate part of our being. It is where our bihira or free choice comes from. When we make intentional choices to love God, we fulfill this part of the mitzvah.
All our… uh…. meodecha (מְאֹדֶֽךָ). This is often translated as might or resources or being. Meodecha is how we interact with and affect change in the world. For some of us that is money, some of us that’s our attention, for others it may be a talent or strength. To recognize that our gifts and powers come from God is the first step. But then how do we use it? If you have a talent for reading, do you become a literary agent or do you use it to study the Torah? The more we use our gifts to bring God into the world, the more we fulfill this commandment.
On Your Heart… TODAY!
“And these words, which I command you this day, shall be upon your heart.”
According to the Kotzker Rebbe, the reason it says these words should be “on” your heart is because ideas don’t always penetrate your heart when you first hear them. Rather it takes time and the right set of circumstances for it to seep in to your heart. It is a process. But what would make the process go faster? I mean, we say this whole thing at least two times a day.
But there in lies the issue. How do we avoid not saying the Shema by rote while our minds are thinking about what’s for dinner? That’s why the Shema says “which I command you this day.” There is an understanding that this day isn’t referring to when God said it to the Jewish people 3,000 years ago. We’re supposed to view it as God is talking to us today, as if we’re hearing this for the FIRST TIME. When you recite the Shema with that mentality, it’s a game changer.
Words to Live By
Imagine that you had the secret to happiness. A mere phrase or idea that the more you understood it, the happier you became. You’d maybe put it on a poster and stick it on your wall? Make it the ringtone on your phone? Set an alarm to recite it? Perhaps write it on a piece of paper to keep in your pocket? None of these practices are outside the norm as people attempt to codify the affirmation they strive to live by. That’s what the rest of the Ve’ahavta is about.
We have to remember that the Shema isn’t a prayer. We’re not asking for anything or even praising God. It is the articulation of a core belief of the religion that we are supposed to embody. You’d think saying it twice a day would be enough, but no, the Torah tells us it is going to be more work than that. We have to teach it to our family, have it on our minds when we travel, physically tie it to our bodies, and post it on our door ways for when we enter and exit our homes.
To paraphrase Rabbi Denbo, This love and relationship with God is more important than anything else in the world. It is more powerful and pleasurable than any other relationship and any amount of money we can amass. The more we master this the more it becomes a part of us. And we should carry it with us where ever we go.
So as we strive to exemplify this essence of Judaism, know that it will take persistence, concentration, constant mindfulness, and digging to find the deeper levels of meaning. But should we take this mitzvah seriously, it has the potential to transform the very nature of our being. That’s the power of love, especially when it is with our Creator.