Shema is the one religious tenant almost all Jews are familiar. Many even have it memorized. Shema Yisroel, Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Echad. Six words and you’re done! Well, after you say Baruch Shem K’vod… and the following three paragraphs.
Yes, all that is what constitutes performing the mitzvah of reciting Shema. Key word, performing a mitzvah! For a good chunk of the 613 mitzvah there is a blessing involved when you perform them, i.e. washing your hands before bread and when reading from the Torah. Well guess what! Shema has not 1, not 2, but 7 blessings! Depending whether we are saying the morning Shema or the evening Shema there are different sets of blessings. The morning has two before we say it and two after, while the evening has two other blessings before with just one after. Oh and if it is Shabbat, there is even another one!
For this post I’m only going to talk about the first of the morning blessings and it sure is a doozy. The blessing is more than four paragraphs long and can sprawl across three separate pages (depending on your Siddur/prayer book). Most shul services speed through this blessing so fast I don’t see how anyone has any idea what they are saying. I’ve been praying everyday in shul since 2017 and I still can barely keep up. And that is even if I switch to reading the English!
The blessing starts talking about light, then moves on to creation, switches to a litany of praises, and all of a sudden it starts talking about angels. It finally ends, blessed are you Hashem, who forms the stars. What does any of that have to do with Shema?!
Love to Love your Love
The Shema has many goals; accepting God’s Kingship, unifying His Name, affirming the 10 Commandments. But also a key part is to love God. But love is an emotion, you can’t command an emotion, can you? I’ve discussed this idea before. In a nutshell Rabbi Noach Weinberg defined love as the ability to identify and take pleasure in the positive attributes of someone or something. Meaning that when we take the time to see the good in something, we grow to love it. Rabbi Naftali Reich stresses that we think of love not as an emotion, but as a verb. Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler emphasized that love was intertwined with the act of giving. But to put it more cleanly, how did Adam love Eve in the garden of eden? By knowing her.
According to the Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah Ch 2), the path to loving God is found “When a person contemplates His wondrous and great deeds and creations and appreciates His infinite wisdom that surpasses all comparison, he will immediately love and praise, and glorify Him, yearning with tremendous desire to know God’s great name…” What we come away with is that the more we contemplate God and see what He does for us, the more we’ll come to love Him. How do these 4 paragraphs of blessings accomplish this?
You Light Up My Life
The blessing starts with “yotzer ohr”, who forms light, then moves onto, “es hacol” who creates all. If God creates everything, why do we need to say He created light first? Clearly, there is something about this light that is more than the radiance of the sun. But maybe not, as the blessing ends, “A New light on Zion may You shine, and may we merit all of us speedily to benefit from its light. Blessed are you Hashem, who fashions the luminaries.” (“Yotzer ha’m’oros” in Hebrew.)
If these “luminaries” simply refer to the celestial bodies that literally bring light, “yotzer ohr” seems superfluous and “es hacol” should suffice! Perhaps the “ha’m’oros” refer to angels which the blessing spends so much of its middle portion discussing. Their praises magnify God’s light above so it can cascade down to the physical world with brighter radiance. They praise God fully and sincerely, “to sanctify the One Who formed them with calmness of spirit, with articulation, that is clear, and with sweet melody.” They also help each other praise God, “with great noise, raise themselves towards the Sepharim…” Perhaps this whole blessing is about emulating the angels. Though that might be helpful as a model, how does that help us to love God?
If we look at Psalm 147, King David writes about God saying, “He is the Healer of the brokenhearted and the One Who bandages their sorrows. He counts the number of the stars and to all of them He gives them names.” To give something a name means that it is important. If Hashem has named all the billions of stars, it must mean that everything in creation must have a meaning and a purpose. The angels are able to sing their praises so heartily because they have a clear cut and tangible understanding of their purpose. They see the good in creation and the goodness of God so apparently, that it robs them of their freewill, so to speak.
We aren’t always so lucky to have clarity in our purpose. That confusion is a bitter darkness and makes it nearly impossible to praise our Creator sincerely, if at all. But the Torah has no scarcity of comparisons between stars and the Jewish people. And as the stars are named, so are we. The Rabbis say that if a person wants to know their purpose in life, they need only contemplate their name as it is a secret source to spiritual healing (hence why the Psalm mentions God’s healing, then that He gives names.) When we understand our purpose and fully involve ourselves in it, we heal and become a source of light.
When we take on the mitzvah of understanding Hashem Echad, that God is One, and that He loves us, then we can look at the world as a constant messaging system. Have you ever noticed that a certain particular thing always seems to annoy you? Or that an odd thing keeps happening to you? You never get parking tickets, then all of a sudden you get three? This is Hashem talking to you, directing you towards your purpose.
A line in the middle of the blessing reads, “How abundant are your works Hashem, all of them with wisdom You made. Full is the earth with Your possessions.” The Hebrew word for possessions is “kinyanecha.” A kinyan is an act of acquisition. Rabbi Naftali Reich says that another way to understand this verse is that the earth is full of ways for us to acquire Hashem. As the Rambam quote said above, everything in creation can be contemplated to understand God. But in addition to marveling at creation, we can come to understand what our role and purpose is and own it!
Understanding that your purpose in creation is to shine the truest light, the way the angels do. That’s one of the essential elements to being able to sincerely say Shema Yisroel, Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Echad. But to do that we have to have confidence that creation is inherently good, and our place in it. But it takes work, mindfulness, and the desire to make it our own. That will bring a person to love God and then we will become the luminaries in God’s creation, bringing a “new light on Zion” which will be brighter than the sun, the moon, the stars, or any light brought by an angel.