“Now, I am going to begin a sentence, and I want you to finish it. OK?” I say in the speech to my daughter’s graduating class.

The girls nod.

“Here goes: ‘Shema Yisrael…’” There is an audible nervous giggle. Of course, they finish the sentence: “Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem echad.” These are religious girls from Israel. They’ve known the Shema—the eternal proclamation of all Jews—from almost before they were born.

As stories emerge from the October 7th massacre, many survivors recall those moments when they held onto Shema Yisrael as tightly as they held onto their weapons. And in many cases, it was the only weapon they had. They whispered or shouted or closed their eyes and moved their lips over and over again—”Shema Yisrael, Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem echad.”

Benni Chasson lived on Kibbutz Kissufim. He and his wife spent hours and hours in their “safe room,” until soldiers arrived to rescue them at 4:00 in the morning. Were they terrorists or Israelis? He wasn’t sure.

“Finish this sentence,” he told the soldier outside: “Shema Yisrael …”

And the soldier answered, “Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Echad.” Finally, they felt safe to open the door.

When a child starts to talk, we are instructed to teach them two verses that are fundamental to our faith: “The Torah that Moses commanded us is a heritage for the congregation of Jacob” (Deut. 33:4). And: “Hear, O Israel: The L‑rd is our G‑d; the L‑rd is One” (Deut. 6:4).

Throughout the ages, “Shema Yisrael” has pushed the Jewish People forward, but in every time period, it has taken on different nuances.

One man went to save his wife, who was working as a security guard at the Supernova party on October 7th.

“I grabbed my guns and ammunition and jumped into the car. I shouted ‘Shema Yisrael!’ as I raced past terrorists, bullets flying all over,” he recalled. He eventually saved his wounded wife and others and drove straight to the hospital. The Shema was an integral part of his ammunition.

When Abraham came onto the scene 3,836 years ago, people worshiped multiple gods. Through logical analysis, Abraham affirmed that there is only one G‑d. Later, the Jewish people had a compulsion to worship idols. We cannot fully understand this addiction because eventually G‑d nullified this powerful urge, but Shema Yisrael was always the Pledge of Allegiance to One G‑d.

The Shema is our guide, our declaration of faith. Its recitation twice daily (morning and evening) is a biblical commandment.

Another survivor describes his escape in the car: “I pushed my wife’s head down, said Shema Yisrael, and roared out of there with one hand on the wheel. Bullets whizzed by from every direction.”

The Greeks believed that after the Creator formed the universe, he left it to its own devices—like a clock that is wound up and then left alone. We do not believe this. As Jews, we believe that there is only one true entity, one G‑d who is the essence of everything.

Everything in the universe is completely dependent on G‑d. G‑d created the universe a long time ago, but He also perpetually recreates it. Were He to remove this life-giving force, all would cease to exist.

Four friends spent hours and hours running from the terror, from bullets and grenades and even axes—hiding, running, driving, hiding, until they were finally rescued. One of them said, “The only weapon I had was Shema Yisrael.”

Noach Hertz was an Israeli fighter pilot held captive in Syria after the 1973 Yom Kippur attack. He had lost a leg when he was ejected out of his airplane and was imprisoned for eight months.

"There is one moment I will never forget,” he said in an interview. “I was very cold, I had severe infections, and I felt that I was exhausted. I looked at the door and began to cry bitterly … I shouted Shema Yisrael …” Although Hertz was not Torah observant at that time, he knew how to say the Shema.

“The next morning I woke up and saw that I was alive, that I didn't die, and I decided … that I would maintain optimism. Thus I passed another day and another with hope and conversations. I sang to myself, shouted things, whistled and felt that my soul was free, that maybe I was imprisoned but my spirit was not broken."

After he was freed, Hertz and his wife continued the journey he began in prison, ultimately becoming completely Torah observant.

In an individual’s life, as in Hertz’s life, Shema Yisrael can take on different meanings.

As a youth growing up in Colorado, I myself would sit on top of mountains and contemplate the Oneness of everything. When I found out that Shema Yisrael is about Oneness, I was astounded that it fit in with my vision of spirituality.

I grew older and moved to Israel. I became a mother and then a grandmother. I had more worries, and I saw more inconsistencies in the world. But I learned about two aspects of G‑d: G‑d is merciful and G‑d is the strict judge. The Shema synthesizes these two aspects of G‑d.

As an observant Jew, I try to see G‑d’s hand in everything, even the bad stuff. Although our brains are too minute to understand this concept completely, G‑d brings both good and evil into the world. When we cover our eyes as we say Shema, we hide the apparent dichotomy, the apparent separateness—in order to proclaim His Oneness.

There is a prayer we say from Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur called “Avinu Malkeinu.” Two of the verses sound quite similar:

“Our Father, Our King, act for the sake of those who were murdered for Your Holy Name.

“Our Father, Our King, act for the sake of those who were slaughtered for your Oneness.”

A survivor of World War II once said, “I’ll tell you the difference between the two: When the Nazis forced us to dig a ditch and then stand in front of it, they began shooting from right to left. The Jews who stood on the right were only able to say, ‘Shema Yisrael Hashem …’ They were only able to proclaim G‑d’s Holy Name. But those who stood on the left side reached the word ‘Echad’, and thus were able to proclaim G‑d’s Oneness.”

Shema Yisrael is the sword and the shield of the Jewish people that we have held onto for millennia.

Sometimes I ask myself, if I were in a life-threatening situation, G‑d forbid, would I have the presence of mind to say “Shema Yisrael,” to die like a Jew?

Did the victims of October 7th have the time and/or the consciousness to say Shema? Only G‑d knows.

“The Jewish people will win this war,” said Yoni Asher, whose wife and two daughters were held captive in Gaza. He was speaking to the parliament of the European Union. Then, in front of all the EU representatives, Yoni stood up and declared: “Shema Yisrael—G‑d is One!”