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Five Generations of Shema Yisrael

Five Generations of Shema Yisrael


My great-grandfather, the rabbi of Krasnostav, Ukraine, said the Shema Yisrael just as the Nazis shot him. He and all the 850 Jews of the town, including my great-grandmother and great-uncle, were were left to die in a mass grave.

His Shema Yisrael was one of dying for G‑d.

My grandfather said the Shema Yisrael thousands of times during his 20 years in Communist Moscow. He tried to raise his family of 13 children (a fourteenth died from hunger during the war years) in the ways of G‑d, despite threats of imprisonment, lack of job sustainability due to his Shabbat observance, and ten-hour waits in breadlines.

His Shema Yisrael was one of defiance for G‑d.

My parents’ generation said the Shema Yisrael despite the unpopularity of religion and faith as they grew up. The “isms” of the times attracted myriads of Jewish souls, and walking tall and proud as a devoted Jew took guts. Rebuilding Jewish life from the ashes of Hitler and Stalin demanded courage.

Their Shema Yisrael was one of fighting for G‑d.

Today, we say Shema Yisrael with a new connotation. In the face of comforts and freedoms that our ancestors would’ve considered messianic, we say a Shema Yisrael that declares: I will not drown in the shallow. I will not get stuck in the entrance halls of the King’s palace. I want to see the King! I want to find G‑dliness – not out of death, desperation, or revolution – but because II want to see the King! want to fulfill G‑d’s mission for me. I want the truth for the sake of the truth.

The Shema Yisrael of our time is unique even among the billions of Shema Yisrael’s that have been sung and shouted throughout our unfathomable history.

Never before have we faced such opportunity and freedom and yet chose G‑d.

The Shema Yisrael of today is one of living for G‑d. Living and thriving in the world and at the same time proudly asserting our identity as Jews.

And we each have our own individual Shema Yisrael, those moments where we must uncover within ourselves the strength and sacrifice to choose G‑d over the temptations of the world.

As for my children? I hope and pray that their Shema Yisrael will no longer be a statement of faith, but rather a declaration of messianic reality: “G-D IS OUR G-D, G-D IS ONE!”

Rabbi Levi Avtzon lives in Johannesburg, South Africa, with his wife Chaya and their children. He is associate rabbi and director of outreach at the Linksfield Senderwood Hebrew Congregationl.
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suzy hander woodland hills, ca March 31, 2014

I always recite the Shema daily. Sometimes I feel guilty because I don't feel like it. The other times I want to with all my soul and my might. I praise G-d even when life doesn't always go my way. And then again, G-d always listens and has patience. Why don't I? Reply

Michael Levin USA March 27, 2014

Rabi, do you have your family tree, connected to Krasnostav?

Vik Oakland, CA, USA via September 17, 2013

the shema Let us hope that the shema will retain its value of today, and that the shema of yester-years will be a remembrance of the past and the sacrifices our fore fathers and mothers made. God bless their souls! Reply

Anonymous via September 14, 2013

Shema The one prayer that I remember most from my childhood is the Shema, it always filled me with such great emotion. When I became an adult and married outside my faith, I still maintained my faith. Our children, some of whom ,follow the Jewish faith all to this day say the Shema. Reply

Anonymous Southeastern PA September 13, 2013

Re: standing vs sitting Interesting question. My take is this. Each level of the service activates a different level within us:

1) The blessings of the morning (B'rakhoth Ha-Shachar) activate the nefesh - body. 2) The verses of song (P'suqeiy D-Zim'rah) activate the ru'ach - emotions. 3) The Sh'ma and its blessings activate the n'shamah - soul. We proclaim the Sh'ma to the world - our fellow humans.

4) The silent standing prayer Amidah - at this level we are in conversation with our Creator, our Redeemer, and our King; we stand in respect of the King. In contrast, HaShem hardly needs to be reminded that He is one - no need to tell Him, so no need to stand.

By the way - there is just one Temple - the holy Beiyth Ha-Miq'dash in Y'rushalayim, may it be built soon in our days. :) Reply

Rabbi Levi Avtzon Johannesburg September 13, 2013

He did survivie Hi Jerry,

My grandfather did survivie. You could read his account in 'Deep in the Russian Night'. Reply

Chava West Hollywood September 13, 2013

Love love love! Love the writing, love the reflection and love the hope!

Amen! Reply

Pazit Hamilton, Ontario, Canada September 13, 2013

poignant This is a very interesting perspective of the developments and changes of humanity and their relationship to HaShem. My favourite line is, "I will not drown in the shallow". How poignant. What an acute observation and concise criticism of one of the greatest problems we face today. This phrase speaks to our world today on so many levels. May I have your permission to use it in a song I write? I can imagine so many possibilities of lyrical ideas stemming from this beautifully written thought. Reply

Jerry Walfish nj September 13, 2013

I guess you missed the point If your grandfather did not survive, then this is merely a story.
It is a nice, feel good story, but not more than that. Reply

YH September 12, 2013

Beautiful Beautiful article, thanks. Gemar chasima tova Reply

Jerry Walfish NJ September 12, 2013

Question Did you grandfather somehow survive? Reply

Rabbi Berel Levertov Santa Fe, NM September 11, 2013

Standing v. Sitting Jewish law states that one may sit or stand while reciting the Shma, based on Bet Hillel's view (third Mishna in Berachot) that the Shma states that one may recite it "when you walk on the road" which means in no particular position.

However, Kabbalah teaches that Shma is part of the third section of prayer, and corresponds to the world of "Beriah" which is the realm of the Holy Throne, hence the recommendation that one should sit during the Shma. (for Halachic reasons one would have to sit some time BEFORE reaching Shma).

Hope this is of some help. Reply

DDDD September 11, 2013

Standing vs Sitting for the Shema? I agree that this is the most important prayer in Judaism. But perhaps you can enlighten me as to why this most important prayer is recited while sitting, at least at my temple? I have spoken with the Rabbi a number of times asking if we shouldn't be standing for this prayer, but all I get is a blank stare. Reply

Rabbi Levi Avtzon Johannesburg September 11, 2013

Dear Dina Thank you for your comment. Yes Rabbi Aaron Chazan was my maternal grandfather. His story as well the story of my paternal grandfather Rabbi Meir Avtzon (thanks Fay) my grandmothers and family serve as great inspiration for me and my family. Reply

Suzy woodland hills, ca September 11, 2013

Shema Thank you Rabbi Avtzon for your wonderful article on Shema. When I say this prayer I feel good about myself and the world that G-d has made. I'm not certain what messianic reality is in our generation except that peace would be truly a gift. This prayer inspires me to be a better person. Reply

Shmuel Graybar September 11, 2013

Thanks for that soul-stirring perspective on a prayer you say every day. I'll not see it the same again! Reply

Michoel Dovid Pittsburgh, PA September 10, 2013

Awesome! That was awesome! I can say I actually have small tears in my eyes from it. Good points. I have learned some maamorim before. But this is nicely written. Reply

Dennis Worthington, M.D. Ruidoso, NM September 10, 2013

Courage & Inspiration Dear Rabbi Avtzon:
Such stories as happened to your family and their village population, while incredibly unfair and horrifying, always bring tears to my eyes as my emotions swell. Not just with anger, but even more with inspiration as to how dedicated they were to G-d. Their courage in facing their imminent death, and reciting the Shema as evidence of their love, commitment, and faith in G-d. They did not die in vain. They stir my soul anew to such a commitment in my own life and that of my family. My prayer is that we, too, will have such faith to not assimilate, but stand firm and trust in the coming Moshiach who will redeem, and make everything right when he comes. May we stand firm as the representatives of G-d to the world, and in doing so bring about the Messianic Age, soon and in our time! Reply

Dayana September 9, 2013

Great essay Thank you for the perspectives. Reply

Noah Isaac Perlman 60173 schaumburg, IL September 9, 2013

excellent! My family is from Russia as well and suffered in a similar way. My smema's will be even more rich with meaning, thank you. Reply

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