Shema: Oneness and Unity
What is God?
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Shema is really not even a prayer, at least in the classic meaning of prayer. It is a statement of fact. The complete statement, in all of its glory is: ‘Listen, Israel, Hashem is our Elohim, Hashem is one’. There you have it. This might be the oldest declaration of faith in the world. It is certainly the oldest currently used declaration of faith. It is probably the oldest unequivocal statement of monotheism. The Hebrew words are quite simple and straightforward. It is easy to see the word ‘Hashem’ (YHWH) twice and a variation of Elohim once. There is Yisrael (Israel) and Shema itself. The only other word in this six word statement is the word echad (one). This final word, rather surprisingly, gets all the commentary. Everybody wants to know what echad really means. It is pretty amazing when you think about it. It’s hard to imagine a word that needs less interpretation than the word ‘one’. What is there to interpret?
The verse of Shema is the introduction to a paragraph in Deuteronomy that seems to have no connection to the verses that come before and after it. It’s a standalone paragraph that has become what is probably the most recited paragraph in the entire Torah, at least by Jews. Observant Jews recite this paragraph at least once a day. Those who daven regularly recite it at both morning and evening services. Many also recite right before they go to sleep, making a fairly common practice of recital three times a day.
‘Listen, Israel, Hashem is your God (Elohim), Hashem is one. And you shall love Hashem your God with all your heart (mind), with all your soul (life), and with all your possessions (strength, lot in life). And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. And you shall repeat them to your children, and speak about them while sitting in your house and walking on the road and lying down to sleep and rising from sleep. And you shall tie them as a sign on your hand and they shall be an adornment (phylactery) between your eyes. And you shall write them on the doorposts of your houses and on your gates’ (6:4-9).
To analyze the Shema is to analyze Judaism. It is impossible to divorce this paragraph from its subsequent influence on Jewish history. While it is true that it is six verses in the middle of Deuteronomy, to Jews it is infinitely more than that. The Shema is Jewish belief in a nutshell. It is the core without all the Talmudic intellectualism, without all the customs and superstitions that Jews have picked up through the millennia, without the philosophical baggage and mystical speculation. When a devout Jew wakes, he or she recites the Shema before doing any other significant activity. It is the last thing he or she recites before going to sleep. These are the final words said upon reaching the moment of death. More than all that, it is the traditional declaration that a Jew makes when faced with the choice of death or giving up his or her faith.
What is the meaning of the word ‘one’? Is it simply saying that there is only one God and not more than one, or is it saying something else, something deeper? We also have to understand the connection between the first verse and the next five. Is the oneness of God the reason to love God, or are the two unrelated? Which are the ‘words’ that must be repeated, spoken, tied, written, and placed upon your heart? Finally what image of God is formed from all these ideas?
Let’s take care of the easier ones first. Which are the ‘words’ that the final four verses refer to? The simplest explanation is that they are the words of the first two verses, namely the verses that state the oneness of God and the commandment to love God. These words are so essential that they must be carried around at all times, thought about, spoken about everywhere, written on the doorways, tied to the body. These words are the core, and a day or even an hour cannot go by without taking them up in some way.
What is so important about those words? Let’s break them into two sections, God’s oneness and the commandment to love God. Dealing with God’s oneness, on the basic level it means that there is only one God. This sweeps away all notions of polytheism and atheism in one fell swoop. One God means that everything is controlled by one divine Guide who runs everything from the Creation of the universe to the birth of a child. The weather, the crops, the coming of plague, war and peace – these were all under the providence of one God.
Polytheist beliefs were rampant at this time and denying them was a great risk. It was so counterintuitive to believe that all these radically different natural forces could be under the guidance of just one deity that doing so would have been seen as irresponsible and foolish. But that is exactly what the Shema says. It says to believe that all those forces are the work of one deity and that one deity is none other than Hashem, the God the Israelites were to worship. This was the same deity whose power they directly witnessed in the Exodus and their experiences in the wilderness. It was time to put all they had gone through into a fundamental system of belief. There is one God and only one God.
But that is not all. They were commanded to love this God in three personal ways. Translating the three ways into what was probably their original understanding renders: ‘with all of your mind, with all of your life, with all of your possessions’. This results in total dedication to this idea. God is not just to be believed in, not just to be worshiped in some perfunctory manner, but to be loved and revered with everything one has. This entailed complete intellectual devotion, complete material devotion, and complete willingness to give one’s all, even one’s very life, for God. While martyrdom was the very extreme requirement, it was included in the list. One should be willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for God with absolute love.
Other beliefs may have occasionally demanded great dedication. It certainly wasn’t unheard of for a devotee to give his or her life for their deity. Nor was giving of one’s possessions to one’s god a rare thing. But this was a major step up beyond that. This called for intellectual devotion such that any consideration of any other tempting possibility was out of the question. The mind had to be totally there – no wavering and no second guessing. All of one’s possessions had to be up for offer, not just a once-a-year donation, but everything, at all times. To love God with one’s life meant that however strongly one held on to one’s life as an inherent right, it all had to be ready for sacrificial offer when called upon.
There is another, slightly different understanding of all this. It all comes down to the meaning of the word ‘echad’. It still means ‘one’, that much is unavoidable. But it isn’t limited to the simple idea of how many deities there are, important as that idea may be. It has a second meaning that may be more profound. This second meaning can be summed up in the word ‘unified’ or ‘unity’. This second meaning focuses on the somewhat unclear relationship between the two primary images of God – Hashem and Elohim. These two images have worked almost interchangeably in many sections of the Torah. Sometimes it is hard to tell when one ends and the other starts. We have already seen statements to the effect that ‘Hashem is Elohim’. In spite of the obvious differences between the two images, they are really one and the same. All the ‘Elohim’ aspects really exist within the ‘Hashem’ image. Hashem is our version of Elohim. Hashem, the Elohim of the Israelites, is a unity.
The subtle twist that this adds to the first understanding can yield an image of God that is nothing short of life-changing. The role of Elohim, the Creator of all and the Guide of destiny, is one and the same as the role of Hashem, the personal God who intervenes into the personal life of every conscious being. The same Power that controls the forces of nature and sets the world on whatever course it is on, is just as concerned about our emotional problems as the formation of a galaxy. We may not think that we are all that important, and in the grand scheme of things we may not make all that much of a difference, but to ourselves we are everything. This egocentric image that we have of ourselves is shared by God. We matter to God as much as we matter to ourselves. Hashem is Elohim. Hashem is unity. There is no hierarchy of divine prerogatives; each godly concern is equally godly and vital.
Perceiving the Image
The old theological battles are over but we still face the same internal battles that the ancients faced. We might not see our internal battles as wars of the gods, but they are still struggles between what seems to be competing forces. We hesitate to bring all those forces under the spiritual domain of a single spiritual Power called God because it means submitting to something else other than ourselves. This is a huge personal challenge. But it can be remarkably liberating. Instead of seeing those forces as the random work of implacable and indifferent forces of nature that we may never understand and can never revere, we are able to see them as the unified result of the Hashem and Elohim – the personal God and the Creator.
Every drive that we feel within us, whether towards anger or toward acceptance, joy or despair, love or hatred, in some way can be used as a means of perceiving and loving God. It may not be very apparent how one can love God through anger, but that does not mean that it cannot be done. Whichever direction life takes us, whether it be into the helpless trauma of disease or the boundless energy of health, the freedom of having enough or the slavery of monetary dependence, the bondage of envy and jealousy or the liberation of acceptance, we will be able to look to God and see that it was all for a purpose. Even life itself, with all its pain and uncertainty, with the ever-present specter of death never leaving the conscience, can be a source of gratitude and adoration. Only God can give life, and only God enables it be taken away. While it lasts, with each breath, God is there.
The image of unity is infinitely powerful in the effect that it has on us. It is the choice between submitting to a greater power, and refusing to acknowledge any power. Unity encompasses all. There is no arena that it does not include it, no matter how much we may want to reserve some area for ourselves. But this need not mean giving up personal influence over one’s life. It just means recognizing that we are not alone in the journey. We have God there with us every step along the road - in our homes, when we sleep and when we rise, in the movement of our arms and the vision of our eyes. Unity is everywhere.
It is no wonder that the Shema is so central to Judaism. Perhaps it even makes sense why Jews were willing to die with the Shema on their lips. It is more than a little ironic that it seems easier to die for the unity of God than to live for it amidst abundant material comforts. How does one love God when life becomes too easy?
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