Thursday, Feb 29, 2024

Just Say Shema

 

The reunion of Yaakov and his son, Yosef, after twenty-two years of separation, certainly evokes many emotions in anyone who learns it. I have to assume that it evoked tremendous spiritual emotion between the father and son who had been so cruelly torn apart.

Chazal tell us that although Yosef fell upon his father’s neck and cried, Yaakov did not reciprocate accordingly. He was saying Shema Yisroel. There are countless meforshim that explain Yaakov’s supplication, ranging from whether it was actually the time of Krias Shema, or whether he was channeling the endless emotion of love that he would have expressed for his son into the infinite love and devotion that he had for the Ribbono shel Olam through the recitation of Krias Shema.

Perhaps there is something additional. It’s an idea that I feel strongly about, especially during this period of crisis and unity. Truth be told, the separation of Jews from each other is so difficult to bear. Ever since Sancheirev exiled the ten shevotim, the pain of separation has been part of our being. But the dispersion of Klal Yisroel after the Churban, and the ensuing centuries of golus, is even more difficult to bear. We address the pain of golus and the hope for “kibbutz goliyus” throughout our tefillos and supplications. But where does the hope come from? Indeed, how is it possible that Jews, who are so torn apart, will come together again? How is it possible that Jews ripped asunder can reunite? Our separations, whether because of enemies who take us hostage, governments who capture us and exile us to distant lands, or even internal strife that rips us apart, seem irreparable. But they are not. Because Klal Yisroel in essence is one being.

Why are we one being? Why are we one entity? Because our source is the epitome of oneness. Our souls and our essence are sourced from the source of Oneness. That source of Oneness and the concept of Klal Yisroel’s Oneness is embodied in the words we say three times a day, “Shema Yisroel Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Echad.” If He is One, so are we. Perhaps that was Yaakov Avinu’s declaration upon reconnecting to his son after twenty-two years. He declared the foundation and root of the miraculous reunion. If Hashem is One, then so are His people. It was a mantra that Yaakov Avinu constantly reiterated. His children at his deathbed affirmed that as well. Yaakov was concerned that one of his descendants was unfit, as was the case with the children of Avrohom, from whom Yishmoel emerged, and like his father Yitzchok who had a child Eisov. His children declared to him, the famous words, “‘Shema Yisroel!’ Just as there is only One in your heart, so too, there is only one in our hearts.”

The declaration of Shema was the affirmation of the Oneness of Klal Yisroel, of family, of the purity of their thoughts.

Our daily segue into our own declaration of “Shema Yisroel” contains that message as well. We ask the Ribbono shel Olam to put into our hearts the ability to comprehend, and to be intellectually deep, to listen, to learn, and to teach, to preserve, to practice, and to fulfill all the words of instruction in Your Torah with love. In addition, we ask the Ribbono shel Olam, to “enlighten our eyes in Your Torah, and cause our hearts to hold fast to Your commandments, and unify our hearts to love and fear Your Name.” We end with a supplication that seems to have nothing to do with the former supplication for a connection with Torah. We end Ahava Rabbah by asking Hashem to “bring us to peace from the four corners of the earth and lead us upright to our land.”

What does that message or appeal have to do with Kabbolas Ol Malchus Shomayim? Perhaps, the answer is that there is no possibility of touting the Oneness of Hashem without beseeching the Oneness of His nation. The only way to get to that Oneness is to beseech the Alm-ghty to generate that Oneness with the unification of His people through their collective return from their scattered existence, across the four corners of the earth.

As the first two separated Jews celebrated their reunion with the declaration of the Shema, so shall their children celebrate the recitation of Shema with their reunion from all corners of the world and being led together to our land.

During this war, I thought quite a bit about that theme and the centrality of Shema in the life of a Jew. As the Holocaust comparison was evoked after the massacres of Shemini Atzeres, I wondered how many of these korbanos died with Shema on their lips.

Some were deprived from their youth of even knowing those holy words and their centrality to every theme of Yiddishkeit. It would be heartbreaking to know that there were Yidden killed Al Kiddush Hashem and their only last words and thoughts were the sound of the lyrics blaring from the loudspeakers at the hedonistic festival.

Indeed, there are campaigns for tzitzis and tefillin, but there must be a commitment to teach every soldier the calling card of every Jew. The calling card of Yaakov’s reunion with Yosef and the affirmation of loyalty that he heard from his sons has to be embedded in the DNA of every Yid.

Whenever I am skeptical of the veracity of a vagrant’s entreats for money, not knowing if he is part of the tribe, I ask them if they know Shema Yisroel. My most intriguing response to the question, “Do you know ‘Shema Yisroel’?” came from a very gruff-looking vagabond who was soliciting funds on Cedarhurst’s Central Avenue a few years ago in the summer.

“Are you Jewish?” I asked.

“Of course; and I need sedaka (sic) for Shabbis (sic).”

“Really? You’re Jewish? Do you know Shema Yisroel?

“Of course, I know him! He sits next to me in Rabbi Kelemer’s shul!”

I left it (and him) at that.

I recently heard that on that fateful day, an elderly Jew barricaded himself in a bomb shelter with an iron door. It took almost ten hours until the Israeli troops reached him, however, he did not know whether they were soldiers banging on the door or terrorists hoping to claim yet another victim.

Instinctively the old Jew shouted through the door, “Shema Yisroel!” then he added, “Tigmor!”

Only after he heard the response of “Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Echad” did he open the door to his eventual rescuers.

I thought about that story and wondered about all the young Israelis who were never taught the identifying mantra of Ichud Hashem. The Lakewood rosh yeshiva, Rav Yeruchom Olshin, once spoke in this neighborhood and asked, “In the first stanza of the post-tachanun supplication of ‘Shomer Yisroel,’ we ask Hashem to protect the remnant of Yisroel in the merit of those who say, ‘Shema Yisroel.’”

The second stanza repeats the plea for protection, for the “Goy echad” in the merit of those who say “Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Echad.”

The rosh yeshiva asked, “When we ask for protection in the merit of those who say ‘Shema Yisroel’ don’t we mean the entire posuk including the saying of ‘Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Echad’? How, then is the first stanza different from the second?”

I thought about the story and surmised an answer. Sometimes there is a Jew that only can say the first two words. Sometimes there is a Jew that can only finish the prompt. That too, merits protection.

I thought about the tragedy in which three of the hostages were killed by Israeli troops. I had heard that they cried, “Hatzilu! Save us,” before the fateful bullets were fired. I wondered why they did not identify themselves with the words, “Shema Yisroel!”

Maybe they did not know them. Maybe they called them out, but the soldiers did not understand them. I don’t know. But I fear the worst.

Maybe they were deprived by their teachers and educators of the words that define them as Jews. If they were, they were not only deprived of their heritage — they were deprived of their lives.

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