Sometimes there is a whole world of significance contained in a moment. An incident took place during the Anglo-Boer War which exemplifies so much of what Jewish destiny is all about. An article published in the London Jewish Chronicle of 20 September 1901 (my grateful thanks to David Sacks for his research) reports from the battlefields of South Africa that a British soldier who was Jewish, said that he, together with another British soldier, had taken prisoner a Boer soldier, and that as they had knocked down and disarmed him they heard him call out the ‘Shema’. No further details are mentioned in the article. Stop for a moment and think about this. Here you have two Jewish soldiers fighting each other, one in the British army, and the other in the Boer army. They meet on the battlefield. At a time of maximum danger and vulnerability, the Jewish Boer soldier calls out the words of the Shema. Both soldiers recognise these words. The article in the London Jewish Chronicle unfortunately provides very few details. Who were these two soldiers? What were their names? Why were they fighting in these armies? What happened after this? Did the two embrace in tears? The sketchy details and many unanswered questions add to the poignancy of this story. In the haze of the chaos and the anonymity of a far flung battlefield on the southern tip of Africa two Jews found each other through the words of the Shema.
Somehow the words of “Shema Yisrael” – “Hear O Israel, the L-rd our G-d, the L-rd is One” have become deeply embedded in the Jewish mind, soul and psyche. There is another incredibly powerful story about the Shema, widely documented in a number of different media. You may have heard of the moving events of 1945 when rescue efforts for survivors of the Holocaust were undertaken by Jews around the world. In May 1945 Rabbi Eliezer Silver of the United States and Dayan Grunfeld of the United Kingdom went to Europe as chaplains to help with the liberation of the death camps. They were told that there were many Jewish children in a monastery in Alsace-Lorraine, where they had been sent when their parents had been taken away for extermination. The rabbis went to the monastery and asked the priest in charge to release the Jewish children in the monastery into their care. The priest refused on the grounds that it was unclear whether any of the children were Jewish, and that without proper proof of Jewish identity he could not release any. Due to the circumstances and chaos of the war years it was impossible to obtain the necessary documentation and the rabbis asked to see a list of the names of the children. They recognised many Jewish names on the list, but the priest persisted in refusing to release the children without any further proper proofs. The rabbis made an unexpected request; they asked if they could return that evening when the children were going to sleep. That evening the rabbis did so and they walked through the aisles between the beds calling out “Shema Yisrael” – “Hear O Israel, the L-rd our G-d, the L-rd is One”! Many children burst into tears and cried out “mommy” in the various languages they spoke. Many had been in the monastery since 1939, were still very young, and had been raised in the monastery in another religion. The Shema, which their mothers had said with them as they went to sleep each night, was so deeply embedded that they had not forgotten it.
What is in the Shema that has so captured the Jewish soul and imagination? Part of the answer is action based. The Shema is an important part of practical Judaism. The verse, “Hear O Israel, the L-rd our G-d, the L-rd is One” is one of the first verses a child learns, and it is the final verse a person should say before leaving this world. It is a mitzvah to say the Shema every day, once in the morning in the first quarter of the day, and then again after dark. This mitzvah includes more than just the first line of Shema Yisrael, but also the three paragraphs that come from the Chumash, and that we are all familiar with in our siddurim. We do not just say the words mechanically. The Shulchan Aruch says that while saying the verse, “Hear O Israel …”, one should have in mind to accept G-d’s authority in our lives and to crown Him as king in heaven and on earth and in all four directions of the universe.
Radical New Idea
Another reason for the Shema’s impact is the power of its ideas. The Shema contains one of the revolutionary concepts of Judaism, that is the unity of G-d, that G-d is one. I say revolutionary because at the time the Torah was given the rest of the world believed that there were many gods, each governing a different force. The ancient people of our world looked at the diverse and conflicting forces and saw within them competing deities. Each divinity had its own sphere of influence. Many people believed in different gods controlling the sun and the moon, day and night, and winter and summer.
When the Torah was given at Mount Sinai a radical new idea arose – that everything you see or perceive, no matter how diverse, different and sometimes even conflicting, originates from one G-d, a supreme and almighty being, Who has no peer or colleague, no equal, no comparison, Who is the source of all life and the original Creator and former of all things. He is the G-d of light and darkness, of joy and pain, of summer and winter, of prosperity and famine, of suffering and contentment, of life and death, of mercy and judgment. That is why we believe that everything that happens, even if we cannot see why at the time, is for a good purpose, and comes from G-d Who is compassionate and loving.
This philosophy means that we look at the world and see an underlying unity of purpose. G-d put everything together to work in harmony like a composer who assembles a diverse orchestra. Through the “Shema” we see a world wholeness and integration, not fragmentation and chaos. G-d also used the principle of unity as the foundation of humanity. There are so many kinds of people with different appearances and cultures and ideas, who live in far flung and different places and yet we are all one family. The Talmud says that G-d ensured the equality of all people through creating us from a single male ancestor – Adam – and a single female ancestor – Eve. He did this, explain our Sages, in order to defeat racism which seeks to claim that there are intrinsic inequalities between different races of people.
G-d’s oneness is also about how to live with integrity. The word “integrity” is related to the word “integrated” or “integral”, referring to wholeness. Judaism teaches that we cannot compartmentalise our lives into the religious and the secular, the moral and the amoral, serving G-d on the one hand and personal pursuits on the other. I have a copy of a letter written in 1954 by Rav Yitzchak Hutner, one of the great rabbinical thinkers of the 20th century to a doctor who was struggling with his identity as a religious Jew with a medical career. Rav Hutner writes that it is wrong for the doctor to view himself as leading a “double life”, with his secular career on the one hand, and his religious identity and responsibilities on the other. Rav Hutner says that if you have one house and rent a room in another building, and live in both, then one can say you are living a “double life”. However, if you have one house and it has many rooms, and you live in the different rooms but all under one roof you are not living a “double life”, but a “broad life”. The idea behind this analogy is that if the doctor sees his Judaism and his religious commitments to G-d as belonging in shul only, and his medical career as completely separate, then he leads a double life. The ideal is not to lead a double life, but a broad life, which means a life under one roof. Service of G-d has one roof but many rooms, and in each a different dimension. Some rooms are about the spiritual service of G-d. Others are about other kinds of service. One room can certainly house the service of G-d by the practice of medicine which helps to heal people and constitutes acts of kindness; part of one’s G-d-given mandate in the world is to reach out to others as an exemplary ambassador of G-d and His values, and generally to make the world into a better place.
Rav Hutner says the word “Echad”, “One”, in the Shema, in its fullest sense of the word, means this : we are literally under one roof of G-d. In fact, the Talmud says that the letter “chet” in the word “Echad” has a roof with a crown on it, referring to G-d’s kingship over the world. Everything that we do is under His direction. Judaism is not narrow. Judaism is made up of commandments, instructions, philosophies and ideas emanating from G-d that cover every dimension of human existence. As the Misnah says, “Turn it [the Torah] over and over for everything is in it”. And the Talmud says that G-d looked into the Torah and created the world. “G-d is One” means that He is the one G-d that we answer to, and that we loyally live with His values and principles in shul and at the office, on the sports field and in our homes, on holiday and at work, in our families and with our possessions, in the kitchen and the bedroom, in our marriages and with our children, with our money and with our siddur, with people and with G-d himself. The Talmud says this world is His palace. This whole world is G-d’s home. We live in His home and it is His presence that holds everything together. Every part of our lives and our existence is connected to Him in some way. A lawyer serves G-d through pursuing justice, a doctor by healing the sick and alleviating human suffering, an entrepreneur by building society through providing goods or services and giving people the dignity of work, a mother by nurturing and raising her children and running a household. And it is not only about a person’s job. It is about how we live every minute of every day. Judaism teaches that all human activities – eating, sleeping, walking, working etc – can and should be directed for a higher good and lofty purpose.
Our Rallying Cry
The first verse of the Shema has found its way into the heart and soul of the Jewish people, not only because of the power of its ideas, but also because of the power of its history. Although it appears in the Book of Devarim (Deuteronomy), the first verse of the Shema was actually articulated generations before. We have an oral tradition, handed down and eventually recorded in the Talmud, of what happened when the Shema was spoken for the very first time and by whom. The Talmud relates how Jacob was on his deathbed and called his twelve sons together to give them a final message before his passing. It relates how he had a prophecy about the end of days. He could see with clarity the future destiny of the Jewish people and the time of the final and ultimate redemption of the world and he wanted to tell his sons about it. It was a natural human emotion of a father and grandfather, and ancestor looking ahead to the destination of the generations that would follow. G-d, however, took away his prophecy and he could no longer perceive it. He did not know why he had lost his power of prophecy, and the Talmud relates that he thought that perhaps this had happened because one or other of his sons was not worthy. He knew that his grandfather, Abraham, had had a son, Ishmael, who had gone off the path of morality and his father’s noble mission. He knew too that his own father had had a son, Esau, who had also strayed from the divine mission. And so he asked his sons if they were still loyal and committed, and according to the Talmud, at that point all of his sons answered in unison, “Hear O Israel, the L-rd our G-d, the L-rd is One”.
Of course, Jacob’s other name was Israel. So, when they said “Hear O Israel”, they were actually saying: hear, our father, Jacob/Israel, we are with you, we are loyal, we are committed; your G-d is our G-d and we are together with you in this important mission for the future of our people. At that moment that sentence became part of the Jewish soul and part of Jewish life. It became a symbol of Jewish loyalty and commitment to G-d throughout the ages, no matter what destiny awaited us. It became our rallying cry. And so when we say the words, “Shema Yisrael”, “Hear O Israel”, according to the Midrash and according to Rabeinu Yonah, we should be thinking of Jacob, Israel, our forefather and the fact that we are still loyal after all of these years, still committed to G-d and committed to the moral vision and values of our people given to us by G-d and faithfully transmitted, from generation to generation.
What a remarkable and miraculous story the history of our people has been. It is a story of twists and turns, pain and joy, destruction and victory, trials and triumphs and ultimately one of miraculous and awe-inspiring vitality and endurance. And it is a story of faith and optimism, with redemption in the end. When we say the Shema we feel the broad sweep of our history and our destiny from its origins in G-d’s promise to our forefathers all the way until the end of days.
Faith in the Future
Jacob was unable to tell his children about the end of days and the ultimate destination of the Jewish people. Jacob was concerned, as we all are, and have been from the beginning of time, about the future. Anxiety about the uncertainty of the future is part of the human condition. . In particular, in these times, as we the Jewish people look out on to the horizon, we see gathering clouds of foreboding, especially in Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and, of course, we have our own local challenges here in South Africa, and our own personal challenges. What carries us through all of this? It is our faith, our faith expressed in the words of the Shema, our faith in G-d and our faith in His values as expressed through His Torah which He so kindly and graciously gave us.
Our future as the Jewish people and our future as the South African Jewish community depends on our transmitting the values of “Shema Yisrael” and indeed all of our Torah to our children. When Jacob heard that his children were loyal and committed to these values, he was comforted even though he did not know what the future held. When Jacob heard his sons say these words he said in response, “Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom forever and ever.” He was overjoyed when he heard his sons commit to the Jewish future. He had lost his prophecy. He did not know the future, but he was comforted by the knowledge that his children were with him and that they would continue the values encapsulated in “Shema Yisrael”. That was his guarantee for the future, and that is ours.
The Shema has become the badge of honour and hope of the Jewish people, through which we have bravely and courageously held on to our beliefs with love and devotion, and care, and optimism for the future. Let us make these words of the Shema part of our lives. Let us say them with our children. Let us say them ourselves every day, in the morning and at night, in times of joy and light, and in times of darkness and pain. G-d is with us in all of this. In G-d’s providence and guidance we march forward into the future. That is why at the climax of the Neilah service, near the dramatic end of Yom Kippur we call out the words of the Shema together as a community with reverence, fervour and passion, with optimism and inspiration.
Gina and I wish you G-d’s blessings for a good and sweet year, and may we all together be sealed in the Book of Life.