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Parshas Vayigash (5775)

The "Shema": The Jewish Response to Life's Most Difficult Question

In this week's Torah portion, Joseph finally reveals his identity to his brothers, and he asks them to bring Jacob down to Egypt to see him. The Torah describes the emotion-filled meeting between Jacob [Israel] and his beloved son Joseph, whom he had not seen for over twenty years:

"Joseph harnessed his chariot and went up to meet Israel his father in Goshen. He appeared before him, fell on his neck, and he wept on his neck excessively" (Genesis 46:29-30).

The commentators point out that although the Torah records that Joseph wept greatly and continuously, there is no mention of Jacob's reaction upon seeing his long-lost son. Rash”i, the preeminent Bible commentator, quotes a Midrash that says that Jacob did not fall on Joseph's neck, nor did he kiss him, because Jacob was reciting the Shema at that moment.

The question here is obvious. Why did Jacob react in such a strange fashion, when most other people in the same situation would have reacted as Joseph did to his father, hugging him and crying? What possessed our forefather to recite the Shema at the very moment that he finally got to see his son Joseph after so many years of mourning over him, thinking that he was dead? Couldn't Jacob find a different time to be religious? And if you'll suggest that the time when father and son met was the Biblically prescribed time for the recitation of the Shema - which would explain Jacob's reciting of the Shema at that precise moment - we would still have to then explain why Joseph didn't recite the Shema at that moment as well!

THE MITZVAH OF RECITING THE SHEMA

In order for us to come to some understanding of Jacob's strange recitation of the Shema at such a strange time, we must first learn what the Shema is all about.

"Shema Yisrael Ado-nai Elo-heinu Ado-nai Echad - Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our G-d, the Lord is One" (Deuteronomy 6:4) is probably one of the most famous statements in all of Judaism. It is the first thing that Jewish children are taught when they learn to speak, and it is often the last thing that a Jew says just before he dies and returns his soul back to its Creator. We all love to sing it out loud when we get together to pray in the synagogue, and it has even been made into a popular Israeli folk song.

On top of all that, and a fact that is not too well-known by most Jews today, is that the recitation of the three paragraphs of the Shema twice a day, morning and evening, is a Biblical obligation required by the Torah, and, when performing this mitzvah, one must have in mind that he is about to fulfill this requirement. Additionally, the Talmud teaches that one must concentrate on the meaning of at least the first verse "Shema Yisrael ....." because the recitation of Shema represents fulfillment of the paramount commandment of acceptance of G-d's absolute sovereignty and kingship over us (referred to in Hebrew as Kabbalas Ohl Malchus Shamayim).

What is it about the Shema that makes it so central to Judaism, to the point that virtually all Jews know it (or at least the first verse "Hear, O Israel ...") almost by heart, and many have recited these words as their last words here on earth before they died? And why does the Talmud refer to the recitation of the Shema as "the acceptance of G-d's absolute kingship over us" and thus a fulfillment of paramount importance among the many other commandments in the Torah? After all, isn't the Shema basically a statement of belief in the Oneness of G-d - that He and only He is the One true G-d? And don't we have many other commandments in the Torah which command us to believe in G-d, and to accept no substitute? So what is so unique about the Shema?

And what does it even have to do with accepting G-d's sovereignty and kingship over us? I mean, we can certainly believe, as many Jews do, that G-d exists, and that there is no other god - which is the basic theme of the Shema - but that's not the same thing as accepting Him as our King, thereby committing and obligating ourselves to follow His every command! Isn't that sort of a stretch? What is this mitzvah really all about?

WHY DO BAD THINGS HAPPEN TO GOOD PEOPLE?

One of the most difficult questions that man has had to contend with over the millennia is the question of why the innocent suffer - a question known in Hebrew as tzaddik v'ra lo (a righteous person who has bad things happen to him). It is a question that Moses posed to the Almighty Himself, and is the subject of an entire book in the Scripture - the Book of Job. And every Jewish (and non-Jewish) philosopher since then has discussed this most troubling of questions.

Many answers have been suggested by the great Jewish minds who have pondered this difficult query, and the Kabbalists have much to say on the subject as well. To go through all the different approaches that have been mentioned by the philosophers would be well outside the parameters of this article. But to get a sense of what has been written on the subject from a traditional Jewish viewpoint, I suggest reading Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan's Handbook of Jewish Thought (Volume II), Chapter 20 Apparent Injustice, pp.312-333.

Ultimately, we human beings of limited and finite understanding cannot fully comprehend the ways of G-d's justice, and though we might come up with some general ideas of why a loving G-d would allow a good person to suffer - e.g. sometimes it is to bring out some hidden spiritual qualities in the person who is suffering as well as in the people around him - only G-d knows for sure why we have to go through all the bad things that happen to us in this world. So that, from a traditional Jewish standpoint, there is no present, clear-cut "answer" to the question of why bad things happen to good people. The best we can do now, when we don't have all the answers, is to say the Shema - the Jewish response to life's most difficult questions.

THE MEANING OF THE SHEMA

What are the words of the first verse of the Shema? "Shema Yisrael, Ado-nai Elo-heinu, Ado-nai Echad. - Hear, O Israel: the Lord our G-d, the Lord is One." Did you ever wonder why we say G-d's name three times in such a short sentence? And why are we calling Him different names - Ado-nai (Lord) and Elo-heinu (G-d)?

The commentators explain that each different name of G-d represents a different attribute of His - a different way of interacting with man. So that when G-d acts kindly towards us and shows us favor and compassion, we refer to Him as Ado-nai (spelled YHVH in the Torah, this four-letter name of G-d known as the Tetragrammaton is generally pronounced Ado-nai, and is often referred to as Hashem, which means "the Name"), a name which denotes G-d's Attribute of Kindness and the name through which G-d performed the ultimate act of kindness - the creation of the world. And when G-d acts harshly towards us and with strict justice, we refer to Him by the name Elo-him, a name that denotes judgment (as is reflected in the Torah, where judges are also referred to as elo-him.)

So that when a Jew recites the Shema, what he is really saying is the following:
Shema Yisrael (Hear, O Israel) - "Listen, everybody, I want you all to hear what I am now about to proclaim:"
Ado-nai Elo-heinu (The Lord, our G-d) - "G-d, Who sometimes acts towards me as Ado-nai, meaning with kindness and compassion, and Who at other times acts towards me as Elo-heinu, meaning with harsh, strict justice"
Ado-nai Echad (The Lord is One) - "He is the One Ado-nai, the Compassionate G-d. And although G-d often acts towards me in opposite ways, and I have a hard time understanding and appreciating how both kindness ("good") and harsh justice ("bad") can emanate from One Source, I believe that all that G-d does is truly good and compassionate."

Now we can begin to understand what is so central about this one statement, and why the Talmud considers the Shema to be "the acceptance of G-d's absolute sovereignty and kingship". The Shema is more than just a proclamation of our belief that G-d is the One true G-d, and that there is no other god of any real power in the universe. It is the Jew's recognition and acceptance of the belief and fact that everything that happens to us in this world is willed and decreed by the One Compassionate G-d, Who cares about everything that we do, and Who has a Master Plan for us, as well as for all of creation.

And by declaring that G-d is One, indivisible, and that everything in this world exists as part of His Master Plan, we subordinate every facet of our personalities, possessions - our very lives - to His will. This is the ultimate Kabbalas Ohl Malchus Shamayim - the acceptance of G-d's absolute sovereignty and kingship over us.

THE MESSIANIC ERA - WHEN G-D'S ONENESS WILL BE SEEN BY ALL

As we mentioned earlier, the best we can do today, with our limited comprehension of G-d's ways of justice, is to say the Shema - that is, to proclaim that, although we can't fully understand nor emotionally come to terms with the seemingly unfair and harsh justice and suffering that G-d deals us, we can at least intellectually accept and believe that all that happens to us emanates from the One Compassionate G-d, Ado-nai.

Our tradition tells us, however, that in the Messianic Era, all the world will believe in G-d and will proclaim His Oneness, recognizing that both the good and the "bad" - including all the seemingly senseless and pointless suffering and persecution and holocaust that we went through as a nation and as individuals - were the work of the One Ado-nai, our Father in Heaven Who loves us and cares for us more than we love and care for ourselves.

As the Prophet Zecharia foretold: "And G-d will be King over all the earth; on that day G-d will be One and His Name One" (Zechariah 14:9). In the Messianic Era, that moment of clarity when all that has happened in history will be viewed by us from G-d's vantage point, and when we will finally be able to comprehend how everything good and bad was part of G-d's Master Plan for the good of all creation, we will be able to see that Ado-nai and Elo-heinu are all One Ado-nai. Until that time, however, we have to have faith in G-d's Oneness, although we can't readily see it.

Rabbi Akiva Tatz, in his book Living Inspired (Targum Press), gives an amazing insight into the very first word of the Shema prayer - Shema, “Hear”: “Hearing is the sense one must use when vision is blocked. In the darkness, when one cannot see, one must listen. Seeing, on the other hand, happens in the light, and what is seen is clear. Deeper than this, when we use our sense of sight, all the elements of the scene are all perceived at once. Seeing is an instant mode, all is present together. But hearing is the opposite - what is heard is not heard at once; the elements of sound are heard in sequence, over time, and they must be assembled by the listener.

“When the Messiah arrives and the world is filled with light, we will be able to see the truth of G-d's Oneness. We will then be able to take in all of history with one glance, and we will see how everything was truly for the good, and how all good and bad emanate from One Compassionate G-d. But for the time being, we are still in the dark, and the best we can do is to hear all the different sounds around us, and try to piece them together into one sensible and coherent sequence.

“This is the great statement of faith that we make when we say Shema Yisrael. We may not be able to see how everything fits in to G-d's Master Plan amidst all the darkness and suffering that we are going through, but we still say "Hear, O Israel" - we can hear all that is happening, little by little, and we proclaim to all who can hear us that all those different sounds, which when first heard, didn't sound right, and didn't seem to fit in with the other sounds - almost as if they were coming from two different sources - will one day blend into a magnificent symphony with perfect harmony.”

JACOB FINALLY "GETS IT"

Now we can finally understand Jacob's strange reaction upon seeing his son Joseph after not having seen him for over twenty years. You see, Jacob was a man of great faith, and you can be sure that all those twenty years of suffering, when he thought that his beloved Joseph was dead, Jacob was reciting the Shema faithfully, twice a day, just like every good Jew after him. And although he could not fathom why G-d was causing him to suffer like this - after all, he had been a righteous, G-d-fearing Jew all his life, and Joseph was also a very good boy - he still said the Shema each day, proclaiming to all who could hear how he believed with perfect faith that even this terrible tragedy was the work of Ado-nai, the One Compassionate G-d Who only wants the best for His beloved children.

However, even for a person with as much faith as Jacob had, the daily recitation of the Shema was strictly an intellectual exercise. Jacob knew that what he was reciting and proclaiming each day was true. But he could only hear the truth, he could not see it.

But then it happened that Jacob merited to see the happy resolution to all this suffering - to see what most of us will only merit to see when the Messiah comes and our eyes are opened to the truth of G-d's Oneness. When Jacob finally saw his beloved Joseph in Egypt - alive and well and serving as Viceroy in a position where he could help support the entire family during the great famine - he realized in that one, eye-opening moment how everything that had happened to him and to Joseph was all for the good - it was all part of G-d's plan to place Joseph in a position of power in Egypt so that he could save the entire family.

And it was at fateful moment when Jacob's emotions finally caught up with the reality that he had intellectually believed in all along - when he finally "got it" - that he took the opportunity to recite the Shema with full emotion and meaning for the first time in over twenty years, and to proclaim to all the world that Ado-nai Elo-heinu Ado-nai Echad .... G-d is truly One, and all that He does is for the good!

We, the children of Jacob, hope and pray that one day, we, too, will be able to recite the Shema as Jacob then did, with our emotions having caught up to our intellect .... on the day when the Messiah arrives and "G-d will be One and His Name One", Amen.

[Sources: Based on the insights of HaRav Zelig Epstien ZT”L]

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