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Hear O Israel

The Lord is One.

Shema Yisrael is perhaps the most powerful expression of our commitment to the oneness of God. The sages suggest that when we say Shema Yisrael, we’re not just proclaiming our commitment to this idea, we’re actually making it happen: “The Holy One, Who is Blessed, said to Israel: you have made Me one in the world…as it is said, Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One” (Bavli Brachot 6a). Saying the Shema is an act of unifying God, of making God whole and one in the world.

This midrash raises questions: God has to be made one? And, even if so, who are we to take on that job? Regarding the first question, we must remember that the omnipotent and transcendent God of Maimonides doesn’t quite capture the personal intensity of the biblical God as S/he struggles through creation and history, facing both success and failure. (I prefer to refer to God in the personal, as She or He. I'll use just the feminine for convenience.) I suspect that this rabbinic midrash’s conception of God is closer to the Bible’s than to Maimonides’, and it assumes that God somehow needs us to make Her one, at least “in the world.” Certainly this idea requires further exploration. But it’s the second question that I want to touch on here: Who are we to make God one?

Two short midrashim from Sifrei Devarim on loving God “with all your heart” may shed some light here:

“With all your heart,” with both your good and evil inclinations.

Another reading: ‘‘with all your heart,” with all of the heart in you, that your heart should not be divided regarding God.

How do we love God with both inclinations? I’m drawn to reading the second midrash (“another reading”) as illuminating the idea behind the first: We are to love God “with all of the heart” that’s in us: not only with our rational and enlightened selves, suitable for public view, but also with the gritty, personal, sensual, and passionate stuff that makes us human. We stand before God in the fullness of what we are, created in Her image, because only then do we have what it takes to face Her countenance. If we’re not all there, we won’t get it. And so when we pray “with all your heart,” we’re bringing our full selves to the words, making ourselves one. That seems to parallel what the sages said that we’re doing in the previous verse: making God one.

Now let’s return and quote in full the first midrash we brought above:

“The Holy One Who Is Blessed said to Israel: You have made Me one in the world, and I will make you one in the world. You have made Me one in the world, as it is said, Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” I will make you one in the world, as it is said, “who is like Your people Israel, one nation in the world” (Bavli Brachot 6a).

Making God one in the world seems tied up with God making us one in the world. Perhaps neither of us can do it without the other. But just as we couldn’t make God one if She wasn’t already the one true God, so too God can’t make us one if we don’t stand before Her with all our heart.

Through the eyes of the midrash, these two verses of kriyat Shema contain a face-to-face encounter between the person reciting the Shema and God. God and Israel direct their gaze one to the Other in a love enabling them to be one to one. Here I want to make a point about the midrash itself: I suggest that this face-to-face encounter with God is not just the content of these particular midrashim but rather the essence of what midrash is altogether.

How did the sages come up with these midrashim on Shema Yisrael? I think they’re listening to these verses with all their hearts. They’re not seeking an objective perspective, turning the text into an object, whose historical meaning they reconstruct. Rather, they are listening to a subject, Who asks that they listen not just in their rational capacity but also in their guts. They’re chanting the verses, tasting and feeling the words. They’re gathering up all of their hearts: their imagination and emotion, their history and psychology, their conscious and unconsciousness, their loftiest aspirations and most vital passions, to face the mystery of the text. In fact, they’re listening so hard that they’re meditating. They’re in the zone, like a poet or an athlete. In this state of midrashic consciousness, God hears their questions and they hear Her replies:

“God, what does it mean to proclaim Your unity?”

“You make Me One, and I make you one.”

“God, how can we make You one?”

“You must love Me with all your heart.”

So it is with those we know and love – rivers of words transmitted through the angle of a glance.

And thus midrash, like prayer and meditation, is a paradigm of Jewish religious experience. What the midrash says about kriyat shma is true about the midrash itself. It isn’t just something we say, it is something we do. And what we’re doing is standing before God, raising our voices, and hearing Her speak.

Dr. Shaiya Rothberg, who earned a doctorate in Jewish thought from Hebrew University, learned at the Conservative Yeshiva Kollela and teaches kabbalah, Jewish philosophy, and Bible. His website is bitterchocolate.faithweb.com.


 
 
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