It’s the last thing my kids hear each night before bed … that is until they start hollering at the top of their lungs, “Abba, get me water!”
Seriously though, I sing the Shema each night at their bedsides. Every time I do this, a chill runs through my body, and I feel connected to my children, my God and my own vulnerability.
The Shema is no doubt the key prayer, motto and re-centering mantra in Jewish tradition. Even today, in our world of deep assimilation, the Shema is still a line that unites so many of us. I’ve sung the Shema joyously with the youth of my synagogue, as well as with beloved congregants during their final moments.
I’ll never forget my visit with the Kalaver Rebbe in Bnei Brak. After telling his story of physical and spiritual survival in the concentration camps, he looked into my eyes and said something that ignited my soul: “You must remember that every day, at one moment in the day, you will be touched by the Divine Light. When that moment comes you must close your eyes and say the Shema with all your heart.”
Shema Yisrael is found in this week’s parsha. Shema Yisrael makes an appearance as a teaser line. By teaser line I mean a literary device implanted for anyone who knows Torah well and reads closely enough to notice a subtle reference to another part of the Torah. It is a common occurrence in Torah that almost acts as an “inside joke” between the Torah learner and The Divine Author.
Our parsha speaks about a special kohen who was designated to lead the people to war. It was a position known as the Anointed Battle Kohen. His battle speech to the Israelites is as follows: “Shema Yisrael [Hear O Israel], today you are coming to battle against your enemies. Let your heart not be faint, do not be afraid, and do not panic, do not be broken before them. For Hashem your God goes with you to fight for you and save you from your enemies” (Deuteronomy 20:3).
If you want to find Torah teasers and plausible interpretations, Rashi is the first place to look. Here, as an explanation of the cross-reference, Rashi, quoting the Talmud, sows this idea: The Battle Kohen is telling the soldiers, “Even if the only merit you have is your recitation of the Shema, you are worthy of God’s deliverance.”
The Sfas Emes (Gerrer Rebbe, Poland, 1847-1905) goes even further than Rashi and posits that even if the soldiers don’t keep any of the mitzvos, as long as they are lovingly “hearing” the Torah, i.e. engaging with Judaism, they are worthy.
This message is clearly one of nonjudgmental inclusivity. It searches for what ties us together— the Shema — rather than that which divides us. This attitude of the Battle Kohen should be an example to the new chief rabbis of Israel who must emulate his role. I bless Rav Lau and Rav Yosef to take a unifying, inclusive and merciful approach to Torah, God and all of Klal Yisrael. Amen!
Rabbi Yerachmiel Shapiro is spiritual leader of Moses Montefiore Anshe Emunah.