“This Torah shall not be removed from your mouth”1
Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai that even if a person would just recite the Shema in the morning and the evening, he fulfills this mitzvah of “not removing the Torah from one’s mouth.” The lesson is that if you fall short of your goal, you have to focus on the good that you have done, because each person is only expected to do as much as they can, given where they’re starting from. If they do that, it’s as if that person has fulfilled all of Torah.2
I remember learning the power of the Shema (שְׁמַע) as a little kid. It felt like I was in the world of Harry Potter and someone had clued me into the Patronus charm, so if I put myself into a deep enough spiritual space, I would be able to conjure up protective power. The Shema was a way to channel Hashem’s oneness into this world; I could say it and manifest magic in my own life. It was a pathway from the natural world I was in as a kid to the supernatural world that my kid mind dreamt up.
Growing up as a Yemenite Jew, I learned to form my hand into a shin (שְׁ), the first letter of the Shema, by placing my thumb and pinky together, leaving my index, middle and ring fingers upright. Once I had this formation, I would close my eyes and place my pinky on my left eye and my thumb on my right. As I got to the last word of the Shema, ‘echad’ (אֶחָֽד/’one’), I would bring all the fingers together, forming one unit and a sort of daled (ד), the last letter of ‘echad’. Then I would kiss my fingers and raise them to the heavens. It was a powerful ritual, one of connection and transcendence.
The Shema (שְׁמַע) is the climactic praise, prayer, and mantra that centers us in the morning and evening prayer. It’s been at the center of Judaism and the lives of Jews since Moshe said the words to the Children of Israel in the desert thousands of years ago. It took on new levels of meaning when formal tefillah replaced the sacrifices, after the second Beit HaMikdash (Holy Temple) was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E. It is the climax of the final Neilah prayer on Yom Kippur, and oftentimes it’s a person’s last words on earth.
The Shema has been echoing through Jewish generations for millennia, its kabbalistic powers potent with the preservation of a nation that introduced monotheism to the world. This sentence spells out the Oneness behind and within all of Creation. In this week’s parashah of Va’etchanan, we read the Shema, which goes a little something like this:
שְׁמַ֖ע יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל ה’ אֱלֹקינוּ ה’ אֶחָֽד
וְאָ֣הַבְתָּ֔ אֵ֖ת ה’ אֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ֥ וּבְכָל־נַפְשְׁךָ֖ וּבְכָל־מְאֹדֶֽךָ
Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is One.
You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.3
The Zohar4 teaches that affirming (‘ה) Hashem/Adonai and Elokim (אֱלֹקינוּ or אלקים), the center of the Shema, is the general principle of all of the written and oral Torah and the foundation of all the mitzvot (commandments). The Mitteler Rebbe, Dovber Schneuri, elaborates that all of the Torah and mitzvot are included in the unity of the Holy One, blessed be He, and His presence in the world, which are the two names, Hashem and His title, Elokim. Hashem/Adonai (‘ה), the HaVaYaH (Tetragrammaton), is kulo chesed, full kindness (‘adon’ means ‘master’ or ‘ruler’/’adonai’ means ‘my master’), while Elokim (אֱלֹקינוּ or אלקים) signifies Hashem’s attribute of judgment.
The word Hashem literally means “the Name” and is a placeholder for the HaVaYah as it was pronounced back when the Temple stood. The name itself is actually a combination of the three words haya, ‘past’, hoveh, ‘present’ and yih’yeh, ‘future’. Chazal (our Sages) teach that this name describes G‑d as a power that transcends the boundaries of time.
From Hashem’s perspective, past, present and future are experienced all at once, because Hashem is, of course, beyond the limitations of time. The Shema is a meditation manifested from this concept, revealing the reality that Hashem is beyond the boundaries of nature, including time.
Each time we recite this verse in prayer, we say in an undertone, “בָּרוּךְ שֵׁם כְּבוֹד מַלְכוּתו לְעוֹלָם וָעֶד”, “Blessed be the name of the glory of His kingdom forever and ever.”
These two verses (Shema and Baruch Shem) are called Yichuda Ila’ah (The Upper Unity) and Yichuda Tata’ah (The Lower Unity), and the Zohar teaches that these two aspects of Hashem’s unity are paradoxically beyond the world while simultaneously filling the world.
The first words, ‘Shema Yisrael’, are the key concepts prior to going into the permutations of Hashem’s name. Shema means “hear” or “understand,” as it’s introducing a reflection, a meditation. The word Yisrael is the second name given to Yakov. Chazal teach that the two names, Yakov and Yisrael, represent two different spiritual levels. The name Yakov, derived from the word “heel,” describes a state of constriction imposed by the outside world. Yisrael is made up of the words “master” and “head” and represents the mindset of being masters over our environments, learning to not be led or controlled by them.
The Sefirot in Kabbalah teach us about the upper and lower worlds of existence, but they also represent a person’s existence, from head to toe, each aspect of the Sefirot correlating a physical element to a spiritual one. The words ‘Shema Yisrael’ are meant as a reflection on rising to the level of Yisrael, from heel to head, kabbalistically from malchut to keter. Each time we say these words we are reminding ourselves that we do not have to be a product or victim of our environment. We can control and rise above nature by connecting to the supernatural, the Light of the Infinite.
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov teaches that the Shema and Baruch Shem contain a total of twelve words, paralleling the Twelve Tribes of Israel, who parallel the Malchut of Holiness. The twelve words contain forty nine letters which parallel the forty nine letters in the names of the Twelve Tribes. When you recite these verses with all your heart and soul, you include yourself in the Malchut of Holiness and push away the Sitra Achra (the Other Side/impurity), which attempts to distance each of us from holiness.5
Further in the Shema, it touches on matters of the heart. As we covered in Parashat Shelach, where the second paragraph of the Shema originates, we read again about one’s heart finding strength in servitude. We also learn here about the tzitzit, which many Jews kiss as they recite the Shema. It reads as follows:
דַּבֵּ֞ר אֶל־בְּנֵ֤י יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ וְאָמַרְתָּ֣ אֲלֵהֶ֔ם וְעָשׂ֨וּ לָהֶ֥ם צִיצִ֛ת עַל־כַּנְפֵ֥י בִגְדֵיהֶ֖ם לְדֹרֹתָ֑ם ….וּרְאִיתֶ֣ם אֹת֗וֹ וּזְכַרְתֶּם֙ אֶת־כָּל־מִצְוֹ֥ת יְהֹוָ֔ה וַעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֹתָ֑ם וְלֹֽא־תָת֜וּרוּ אַחֲרֵ֤י לְבַבְכֶם֙ וְאַחֲרֵ֣י עֵֽינֵיכֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁר־אַתֶּ֥ם זֹנִ֖ים אַחֲרֵיהֶֽם
Speak to the Israelites and have them make tassels on the corners of their garments for all generations….and when you see them, you shall remember all of God’s commandments so as to keep them. You will then not stray after your heart(s) and eyes, which [in the past] have led you to immorality.6
In the verse above and in the Shema, you may have noticed when it says heart in Hebrew לְבַבְכֶם֙, it’s actually plural– ‘hearts’. Each person has two conflicting inclinations, which the “two hearts” in this verse allude to. We all have a Yetzer Tov, our Godly soul, that wants to connect to the Light of the Infinite and, on the other hand, we have the Yetzer Hara, our animal soul, the part that is tied to the physical, that is connected to the finite, that wants to immerse itself in all the pleasures of this world.
The word לְבָבְךָ֥ (your heart) is also spelled with two vets (ב) instead of one, signifying our two inclinations, and teaching that both should be used in the service of Hashem — subduing the urges of the evil inclination, following the desires of the good inclination, bringing peace between the two forces.7
The Hebrew word for world is ‘olam’, which etymologically is related to the word ‘helem’, meaning ‘concealment’. Our bodies and the sitra achra find pleasure in conquering this world, but our yetzer tov reaches beyond this world of concealment and only wants to unify with the truth, to elevate the concealing darkness by revealing the light within it.
Rabbi Chaim Vital wrote in Sha’ar Hakedushah that every Jew possesses two souls, as it says in Isaiah, “And the neshamot (souls) which I have made.”8 The Tanya teaches that one soul originates from the Kelipah (shell or peel): just as the peel conceals the fruit, Hashem conceals the Godly life-force within the shell of everything in Creation. The other soul originates from the Sitra Achra, the side of creation that opposes holiness.9
Our task is to unify our hearts and souls, to serve Hashem with both our yetzer tov and yetzer hara, to make our animal soul subservient to our Godly soul. As we walk through life, we have a choice which soul we will tap into. For example, our animal soul can use sex to try and satiate lust, or our Godly soul can use it to connect with a partner and, ultimately, emulate Hashem by creating life itself. We can eat food in a similar fashion to other creatures, or we can elevate the food by meditating on it, saying a blessing on it, realizing how incredible it is to be able to have what we need, using the strength the food gives us to continuously connect and learn and inspire others– all to bring light and truth into the Olam, pushing away helem bit by bit.
The Shema is a moment to pause during the rest of Tefillah and prior to the Shemoneh Esrei (the Eighteen Benedictions or the Amidah) to really connect to Hashem on the level of Dveikut, of intimate closeness. The root of Dveikut is ‘devek’, which means glue, so the idea is to adhere oneself, like glue, to Hashem and not to his attributes, which are only His titles in relation to the world. Normally we relate to these other attributes, because they are how we can attempt to grasp Hashem as we go about our daily activities. But at the moment of Shema, we are trying to get as close as we possibly can to that ineffable existence of Hashem.10
The Mitteler Rebbe, Dovber Schneuri, teaches that if each person “sets his heart, his spirit and his soul to Him, he will be gathered unto Him,11 through total investment of his soul into the Oneness of Hashem.” As the Zohar describes, by doing this, “a spirit awakens a spirit and draws forth a spirit.”12 If the person puts their entire heart and soul into the recital of the Shema, then they will radiate with new light during the Shemoneh Esrei.
The Shema is a moment to get lost in love, but on a level greater than ahava (love), on this level of Dveikut, clinging to Hashem. Rebbe Nachman teaches that the mitzvah of loving Hashem is the root of all the positive commandments, because when a person acts honestly out of that love, it causes Hashem’s Name to be beloved and brings out the desire to fulfill all of the mitzvot.
Rambam in Hilchot Teshuvah expounds on the mitzvah of loving Hashem:
The proper love is that one should love Hashem with the greatest love, the strongest, to the extent that his soul is bound up in the love of Hashem, and the person thinks of this constantly, as if he is sick with love, where his mind is not free of the love of a woman, and he thinks of her constantly, whether he sits or gets up, or when he is eating and drinking. More than this should be the love of Hashem in the hearts of those who love Him, who think of [their love] always, as He commanded us, “with all your heart and with all your soul.”13 As King Shlomo articulated; “for I am sick with love.”14
The Dubno Maggid, a disciple of The Baal Shem Tov, gives an analogy where a certain villager brought a garment back to the tailor who made it and screamed that it was the wrong size. The tailor looked at the villager and burst out laughing. The villager had put the new garment on top of his old, tattered suit. The same is true with love. Love can only fill the space in a pure heart. If a person‘s heart is filled with dirt, he cannot fill it with love. This is what Chazal said in Sifri, “Do you not know how to love? It states, “These words shall be…. on your heart.”15 This means that you actually have to make a place in your heart for these words, clearing away the tum’ah (spiritual impurity) and the dross of the Sitra Achra. This action is the one to fill your soul and to bring you to the taste of Supernal love.
Closing one’s eyes to the physical world and tapping into Dveikut, clinging to the Oneness, is what’s needed to connect to what is beyond our purview. To pursue a real connection with the Divine, it’s essential that we pause from our constant battle against time and reflect on what is beyond time. The proclamation of the Shema and Hashem’s Oneness is meant as a reminder that all is God so all is good. Our task to put our emunah (faith) and bitachon (trust) in the truth of the Shema and Baruch Shem, to release the control that we think we have and sing out that all is in Hashem’s control, except our Love of Him, which is left to each of us to recite with all your “heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”
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