Av 5760 – Saying Shema

1 Av 5760

Dear Rabbi Orlofsky:

People have been asking me why we say “Shema Yisroel”. If the prayer is directed to G-d, why do we tell all of Israel to listen? No one can hear us except for G-d!

Thank you,

Heidi Levin
Michlelet Esther 5760

Dear Heidi,

Great question! You see, the Shema is a strange kind of a tefilla, because it isn’t technically a tefilla. We are neither praising, nor asking or requesting. All we’re doing is reading, two paragraphs from Devarim and one from Bamidbar. The mitzva to read the Shema is D’Orayssa, the berachos before and after are tefillos and are MiDeRabbanan. So we have to realize that Shema is unique, not your usual tefilla.

The Shema is a declaration – Hear O Israel (I would translate that as “listen carefully, Jews”) Hashem, who is our G-d is One! Look at the first paragraph (leave out Boruch Shem Kavod Malchuso L’olom Vaed for now, that’s an addition). We declare Hashem is One and then we say, Love Hashem with all your heart and all your life, and all your money. That’s it. That’s the whole paragraph. The rest says this is important, this is very important, so teach it to your children and write it on your head and tie it on your arm and write it on your door, and say it when you get up and say it when you lie down, and say it in a box and say it with a fox. This is REAL important. That’s it. That’s the Shema, Two lines.

Now two questions should occur to us when we say this. One is – how can you ask me to love Hashem? That’s an emotion. Either I feel it or I don’t. The second thing is, what is the point of saying “Hashem is One”. Is this a declaration of our monotheistic values in contrast to the polytheistic gods? If so, we will have a hard time relating to it, because we don’t meet many idol-worshippers today (we meet a lot of “idle-worshippers”, but that’s another story). So if we understand this point, what we are declaring by saying “Shema Yisroel”, I think we can understand the other.

Monotheism doesn’t mean we believe in one god instead of fifty gods. Why worship fifty gods, we Jews always prefer to buy wholesale. So pray to one clearinghouse god. That’s not the point. When we say Hashem is One, we mean Hashem is everything. Infinity. Hashem has everything and needs nothing. In polytheism, the gods demand a sacrifice. They want the sheep, the wheat, the wine, the occasional young maiden thrown into the volcano. Hashem, on the other hand is One. Infinite. With no needs and no wants and lacking nothing. If so, then Hashem must have created the world for us. In order, as the Mesillas Yesharim says in Perek Aleph, to get the greatest pleasure and delight in the world, which is of course to get close to Him. Therefore, the Shema continues, love Hashem with all your heart and all your life and all your money. Because it’s the best way to live life.

The sefer HaChinuch on the mitzva of Ahavas Hashem says that the way to do this is by focusing on the fact that loving Hashem is greater than wealth, children and honor. Meaning, these are the things we enjoy in the world, but there is something even more enjoyable, and that is the close loving relationship we can have with HaKadosh Boruch Hu.

Heidi, the sad reality is that today most frum Jews forget this. They think the purpose of life is to do ritual, or to serve Hashem as though He needs our avoda. Hashem is just fine, thank you. We are being given an opportunity to do the mitzvos that bring us close to Him in order to enjoy the greatest delight possible. Since it is so easy to forget what life is all about when we go out into the “real world” Hahsem says to us – remember why you are alive! Say it when you get up, say it at the end of the day when you go to sleep. Write it on your door before you go outside into the “real world” where money and power are what counts. Teach it to your children and – before you start – call out “Shema Yisroel”, listen you Jews! Remember what life is all about. Because something this important can’t be kept to ourselves, we have to share it with others.

And so my legions of ex-seminary girls, back in the “real world” after your fantasy stay in Israel. After a year or two of listening to people talk to you about middos, and personal growth and holiness and all that other nifty stuff. Now you are back in reality. Time to be practical, no more up in the air fluffy nonsense. Let’s remember what’s important in life, parnassa, shidduchim, meaningful careers (osher, kavod and bonim, as the Sefer HaChinuch says). For us, the Shema has a dramatic message – keep your focus!

And now a personal plea. I am constantly hearing from seminary girls how they come back from Eretz Yisroel and they can’t find any inspiring shiurim on a high intellectual level, so they end up losing it. Well, this is your call to arms. Shema Yisroel! START those shiurim, contact the other girls back from seminary, find a Rav you think can relate to them and BADGER him until he agrees. Don’t sit back and don’t revel in the insights you have gained, do something with them. I am waiting to hear through JEMSEM about all the shiurim that have been started by you in your communities, and I think we should start a listing to let the others know what’s available.

Be well, keep in touch and I hope to hear from you soon.

Dovid Orlofsky