This week’s Parshah, Va’etchanan, includes the verses of the Sh’ma prayer.
The Sh’ma, the watchword of the Jewish faith, declares the unity of God, and is the most important prayer in Judaism. It is the first prayer taught to children and is said before going to bed at night. As well, the words of the Sh’ma are traditionally the last words uttered before death.
During the recitation of the first line, the pray-er recites it with eyes closed and great concentration. What is it about these six words that carry such great power? What message can we glean from this prayer? Why is it that so many people find themselves repeating over and over the six words of this prayer when they find themselves in a frightening situation? The Sh’ma is the only verse that according to our tradition must be recited with full concentration of mind and if there is no kavannah (inner devotion), then one has not fulfilled one’s duty.
Let’s examine each individual word.
Sh’ma – for some, this first word carries the greatest strength. It means “Listen” or “Hear”. What are we supposed to listen to? We are taught from an early age, that “listen” means to listen to your elders or your parents. In this context however, it might mean, “listen to God, listen to the world around you, or listen to yourself”. When we turn inward, it can be difficult to listen to the small voice we hear inside of ourselves, especially if we are used to listening to the loud shouts around us. The expression “go with your gut” demands that we shut out those external noises and go with the voice that is guiding us from within.
Yisrael – We are the children of Israel. Our patriarch, Jacob merited this name when he overcame the obstacles within himself, and truly engaged with God – in what some interpret from the Torah as an actual wrestling match! It was because of his courage that Jews are known as the children of Israel. The legacy that Jacob passed down to us is to challenge our beliefs, to struggle with the often insurmountable moral, ethical and religious problems our lives present.
Adonai Eloheinu – The next phrase of the Sh’ma invokes the name of God, The first word, Adonai, is actually spelled in Hebrew YHVH, a name that is not supposed to be pronounced. The letters YHVH translated most closely, come from the verb “to be”.
These letters come from the initial letters of the phrase spoken by God to Moses on Mt. Sinai when Moses asked “who shall I say has sent me “. And God replied “I am that I am” (Ex.3:14). Perhaps the idea of YHVH is that there really is no description that one could use for God. Perhaps YHVH is not really a name so much as a statement about God.
Just as our name, Israel, points us toward a deeper understanding of ourselves, so the name YHVH is intended to likewise point us toward a deeper understanding of our very existence in the world.
Eloheinu, translates to “Our God”. In other words, it is not enough to say the words Adonai. Adonai refers to God. Eloheinu refers to OUR God. This is an affirmation that God is there for all of us. It is akin to us saying “MY mom or dad” rather than “mom or dad”. Using the word “our” makes it that much more personal.
Adonai Echad – The word Echad means, “One”. Adonai Echad means God is One. The obvious meaning is that these final words mean, “God is One”. Our sages teach us that “One” refers to God’s true and absolute unity within His Creation. Echad is the foundation upon which Judaism stands.
Echad is the one attribute ascribed to God. While we have many adjectives to describe God – Omnipotent, Eternal, Loving, Merciful, etc., this prayer uses the word Echad. Nothing fancy about that. It is a seemingly simple statement, and yet, it binds our belief system together and helps us recognize that we are all connected.
My husband Chris interprets the meaning of the Sh’ma as a proclamation – “Listen up, everyone! Remember! We wrestle with God, we struggle to meet him through pain, ambiguity, sadness, quandary and grief. Sometimes we lose our connection. But don’t forget – God is great! God is ONE!” Chris figures that if he yells loudly enough, he can force the issue.
But perhaps instead of the loud proclamations, we can seek God and find answers when we listen to the still small voice inside of each one of us.
Cantor Tracey Scher