ובזה יובן טוב טעם ודעת לתקנת חכמים, שתקנו ברכות קריאת שמע: שתים לפניה כו׳, דלכאורה אין להן שייכות כלל עם קריאת שמע, כמו שכתבו הרשב״א ושאר פוסקים

This will enable one to understand the eminently reasonable explanation of the Rabbinic enactment (Mishnah, Berachot 1:4) ordaining the recitation of the blessings of the Shema: two blessings preceding it, and so on.1 For at first glance it would appear that they have no connection whatever with the recital of the Shema, as Rashba2 and other halachic authorities have stated.

In this, they are unlike other Rabbinic blessings pronounced over mitzvot, where each such blessing refers explicitly to the mitzvah itself (as for example the blessing “...to put on the tefillin”).

ולמה קראו אותן ברכות קריאת שמע, ולמה תקנו אותן לפניה דווקא

Why, then, were they termed “Blessings of the Shema?” And why was it ordained that they be recited specifically before it when they are in no apparent way connected to it?

The Alter Rebbe explains that the purpose of these blessings is to serve as a preparation to the Shema. The main objective of the Shema is attaining a “love of G‑d with both one’s inclinations” — so that not only the divine soul, but the animal soul and Yetzer Hara also come to love G‑d. And for this one must first meditate on the contents of the blessings of the Shema, which describe the self-nullification of the angels and other creatures.

Thus, the blessings preceding the Shema are indeed similar to other blessings. Just as the Sages instituted blessings to be recited before performing any other particular mitzvah in order to make the person a fit receptacle for the beneficent flow he receives from its performance, so, too, did they institute the blessings preceding the Shema in order for one to properly perform that mitzvah.

אלא משום שעיקר קריאת שמע: לקיים בכל לבבך כו׳, בשני יצריך כו׳

But the reason is that the essence of the recital of the Shema is to fulfill the injunction, “with all your heart...,” that is,3 “with both inclinations...” — that a Jew should love G‑d with the whole of his heart, even with his animal soul and evil inclination,

דהיינו לעמוד נגד כל מונע מאהבת ה׳

that is to say, to withstand anything that hinders [him] from the love of G‑d.

ולבבך: הן האשה וילדיה, שלבבו של אדם קשורה בהן בטבעו, כמו שאמרו רז״ל על פסוק: הוא אמר ויהי, זו אשה, הוא צוה ויעמוד, אלו בנים

For “your heart” alludes to one’s wife and her children, to whom a man’s heart is, by his very nature, bound. So have the Sages, of blessed memory, commented4 on the verse:5 “For He spoke and it came to pass,” that this refers to one’s wife; “He commanded, and it stood fast,” that this refers to the children,

I.e., it is G‑d’s command that imbues a man’s nature with the bond to his wife and children. These are “your heart,” the things to which his heart is bound — and they are not to hinder his divine service.

ונפשך ומאדך: כמשמעו, חיי ומזוני

and by “your soul and might” is understood, literally, your life and sustenance; they, too, should not act as an impediment to spiritual service;

להפקיר הכל בשביל אהבת ה׳

all are renounced for the love of G‑d.

Thus, neither the things found “within” — the animal soul and evil inclination, nor those things “without” — one’s wife, children and sustenance, should hinder a person from those matters which lead to the love of G‑d.

ואיך יבא האדם החומרי למדה זו

But how can physical man attain this level? — of G‑dly love that nothing can obstruct.

לכך סידרו תחלה ברכת יוצר אור, ושם נאמר ונשנה באריכות ענין וסדר המלאכים העומדים ברום עולם

It is to this end, therefore, that the blessing of Yotzer Or was introduced to be recited first, for in this blessing there is stated and repeated at length — and this meditation must indeed be a lengthy one, taking into account all the specific details — the account and order of the angels “standing at the world’s summit,”

להודיע גדולתו של הקב״ה, איך שכולם בטלים לאורו יתברך, ומשמיעים ביראה כו׳ ומקדישים כו׳ ואומרים ביראה: קדוש כו׳, כלומר שהוא מובדל מהם ואינו מתלבש בהם בבחינת גילוי

in order to proclaim the greatness of the Holy One, blessed be He — how they are all nullified in His blessed light and “pronounce in fear...” “and sanctify...” G‑d’s Name, and “declare in fear, ‘Holy’,”... meaning6 by saying “Holy...” that He is apart from them, and does not clothe Himself in them in a revealed state,

אלא מלא כל הארץ כבודו, היא כנסת ישראל למעלה, וישראל למטה, כנ״ל

but where is G‑d revealed? — “The whole earth is full of His glory,” namely, the Community of Israel above i.e., Malchut of Atzilut, the source of Jewish souls, which is called “earth”, and Israel on this earth below, wherein Jews perform Torah and mitzvot, for which reason specifically is this world filled with His glory: it is here that G‑d clothes and reveals Himself, as has been explained earlier.

All the above refers to the comprehension of the supernal angels, the serafim, who are able to comprehend how G‑d is apart from them and that only the earth is charged with His glory.

וכן האופנים וחיות הקודש ברעש גדול וכו׳: ברוך כבוד ה׳ ממקומו, לפי שאין יודעים ומשיגים מקומו

So, too, we find related in the7 blessing of Yotzer Or, regarding other categories of angels, whose place is in a lower world than the serafim, and who are therefore unable to comprehend how G‑dliness is separate and apart, that “the ofanim and the holy chayyot with a mighty sound” declare:8 ‘Blessed be the glory of the L‑rd and may it be drawn down from its place,’" for they neither know, nor do they apprehend His place — the place from which G‑dliness is revealed, for which reason they say ”from its place,“ wherever that place may be,

וכמו שאומרים: כי הוא לבדו מרום וקדוש

as we say a few lines later, “For He alone is exalted and holy.”

The various degrees of nullification of these angels are thus spoken of in the first of the two blessings preceding the Shema. When a person meditates on this matter he will begin to understand G‑d’s greatness, for all the lofty angels are nullified to Him.

ואחר כך ברכה שניה

Then follows the second blessing, which declares G‑d’s great love of the Jewish people.

Notwithstanding the lofty service and the subjugation of all the heavenly angels, G‑d saw fit to set them all aside, as it were, choosing instead to delight in the service of His people below. This blessing begins:

אהבת עולם אהבתנו ה׳ אלקינו, כלומר, שהניח כל צבא מעלה הקדושים

“L‑rd our G‑d, You have loved us with everlasting love.” That is to say, that He set aside all the supernal, holy hosts — the heavenly angels, for they are not the ultimate intent of creation,

והשרה שכינתו עלינו, להיות נקרא אלקינו, כמו: אלקי אברהם כו׳, כנ״ל

and caused His Shechinah to dwell upon us, the Jewish people, so that He be called “our G‑d” in the same sense that He is called9 “the G‑d of Abraham,...” as explained earlier.10

Abraham was completely nullified to G‑d. To the same degree that G‑d is called “the G‑d of Abraham,” He is also called “our G‑d.” This is accomplished, as explained earlier, through the performance of Torah and mitzvot.

והיינו כי אהבה דוחקת את הבשר

This is because “love impels the flesh.”

Love effects concealment and contraction. So, too, did G‑d’s love for His people bring about a certain contraction, in that He chose the service of Jewish souls in the state in which they are found here below — enclothed in physical bodies, and in the finite world.

ולכן נקראת אהבת עולם, שהיא בחינת צמצום אורו הגדול הבלתי תכלית, להתלבש בבחינת גבול הנקרא עולם

Therefore this love on G‑d’s part is called ahavat olam, literally, “a love of the world,” for it refers to the “contraction” of His great and infinite light, by assuming the garb of finitude, which is called olam (“world”) — the concept of “world” signifying the finitude of space and time. G‑d brought about this “contraction”:

בעבור אהבת עמו ישראל, כדי לקרבם אליו, ליכלל ביחודו ואחדותו יתברך

for the sake of His love for His people Israel, in order to bring them near to Him, that they might be absorbed into His blessed Unity and Oneness through Torah and mitzvot.

וזהו שאומרים: חמלה גדולה ויתירה

This is also the meaning of what we say a little later on in the same blessing of Ahavat Olam, and in connection thereto: “Exceedingly abounding compassion,” i.e., more than You have bestowed upon others, “have You bestowed upon us,”

פירוש: יתירה על קרבת אלקים שבכל צבא מעלה

namely, [a compassion] exceeding the nearness of G‑d toward all the hosts above.

G‑d’s nearness to them comes out of His sense of compassion for them. This can in no way compare to the compassion G‑d feels for us, for which reason He draws us closer to Him. The same blessing of Ahavat Olam then goes on to say:

ובנו בחרת מכל עם ולשון, הוא הגוף החומרי הנדמה בחומריותו לגופי אומות העולם

“And You have chosen us from among all nations and tongues”: this refers to the material body which, in its corporeal aspects, is similar to the bodies of the gentiles of the world.

True freedom of choice can only come about when one has two completely equal choices. When two things, however, are unequal, one does not freely choose one over the other — the qualities found in one and lacking in the other compel the choice.

It is therefore impossible to say that “You have chosen us” refers to Jewish souls, for there can be no comparison between Jewish and non-Jewish souls, inasmuch as a Jew’s soul11 “is truly part of G‑d Above.” Rather, “You have chosen us” refers to the Jew’s material body, which in its corporeality is similar to the bodies of non-Jews.

G‑d freely chose Jewish bodies to be the proper receptacle for Jewish souls, desiring that through the deeds performed by the body (for all physical mitzvot demand bodily participation) the Jew should become united with Him. This the Alter Rebbe now goes on to explain, first continuing to quote from Ahavat Olam:

וקרבתנו וכו׳ להודות וכו׳, ופירוש הודאה יתבאר במקום אחר, וליחדך כו׳, ליכלל ביחודו יתברך כנ״ל

“And you have brought us near...to give thanks...” (the interpretation of “thanks” will be given elsewhere, where the quality of abnegation found in thanksgiving will be explained), “...and proclaim your Oneness...,” which means to be absorbed in His blessed Unity, as has been explained above.

The Alter Rebbe will soon conclude that meditating on the concepts appearing in the blessings of the Shema leads a Jew to the proper realization of the Shema — attaining an ardent love for G‑d.