Parshat Vaetchanan: The Shema’s Amazing Staying Power

Rabbi James Michaels
(Courtesy of Charles E. Smith Life Communities)

By Rabbi James R. Michaels

“Shema Yisrael …” Almost any Jew who hears these two Hebrew words knows that they mean: “Hear, O Israel!” And while almost every Jew knows the Hebrew words that come next, there’s ambiguity in this simple sentence that ends, “Adonai is One.”

This basic declaration of faith, found in this week’s Torah portion (Deuteronomy 6:4), is so important that we’re obligated to recite it twice every day of the year. It’s written on the parchment inside the mezuzah, so we see it whenever we enter or exit our homes. And, if possible, every Jew should say it shortly before he or she dies. It’s an important sentence.

Through the centuries, various people have understood the words “Adonai echad” in different ways. In biblical times, it expressed the essence of Jewish monotheism: We believe there is only one God, not the multiplicity of deities which all other ancient religions and cultures believed in.

When Jews were forced into exile, this concept helped them retain their identity. Rather than succumb to the temptation to worship the gods of the local population, Jews knew that the One God was with them.

I find this idea appealing because it speaks to the loneliness which many people are feeling at this time.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, my interactions with nursing home residents have been virtual. I lead services, but nobody is in the room. Instead, I speak to a television camera and the residents watch via closed-circuit TV. When I come to the part of the service where we recite the Shema, I tell everyone to sing it so loud that those who are nearby can hear. It can be an affirmation of belief, pride in being Jewish and the understanding that nobody is truly alone. By saying “God is One,” each of us is assured that God is with us.

As important as this is for people who are isolated for reasons of health, I think it can speak to what everyone is experiencing right now. Loneliness can be a problem for everyone. I think a helpful exercise would be to take five seconds every morning, concentrate and recite the Shema. Even if you don’t say any other prayers, this five-second practice could make a big difference in your approach to the day.

The Shema has had staying power. It has been with us throughout our history. It truly is unique and can help get us through all difficult times.

Questions for discussion:

1. Look at this passage in any Chumash. How many different meanings can you find for the idea that God is One?

2. What does the idea “God is One” mean to you? Has it changed over the years?

Rabbi James Michaels is the director of clinical pastoral education at the Charles E. Smith Life Communities.


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