Shema Yisrael

The most well-known verse in the Torah is the declaration of Jewish faith, Shema Yisrael, “Hear O’ Israel, G‑d is our Lord, G‑d is one.”1 It is part of our liturgy and is recited as many as four times a day. It is the verse declared by countless Jews who faced death at the hands of the Babylonians, the Romans, the Crusaders, the Cossacks, and , more recently, the Nazis, who murdered 6 million Jewish men, women and children in Eastern Europe during the Holocaust. And it all begins with the word, Shema—“listen,” “pay attention.”

It is admittedly not the only time this word is used in the Torah, but it is the only prayer in our liturgy that begins with this word. It is so important that G‑d wants to make sure we are indeed paying attention. Before it begins, He tells us to ignore every distraction and to listen. Make sure you get it. Pay attention.

Kavanah

It is ironic but true that when we are called to concentrate, we often find it difficult to do so. It is hard to pay attention on command. We can focus all day long, but the moment we are specifically asked to accomplish a task, we can stumble, hesitate, lose the direction we need. When we are told what to think, we stop thinking. When we are told not to think, ideas start brewing.

Prayer is one of those times when we are commanded to pay attention. We are told that prayer is “devotion of the heart.”2 When the people in ancient times repented by rote, G‑d appeared to the prophet Joel and said: “Return to me with all your heart. Rend your hearts, not your garments.”3

Yet it is difficult to pay attention during prolonged prayer. The mouth mumbles and the mind wanders. Before long, only our mouths are praying, but our hearts may be all over the place.

Rabbi Adin Even-Israel (Steinsaltz) uses a wonderful metaphor to describe the problem. Imagine, he wrote, that someone built a beautiful house and filled it with expensive furniture; however, he forgot to attach a roof. The house looks wonderful, but by the next rainfall, it will all go to ruin. Similarly, we gather in the synagogue, open the prayer book and read the words, but if our minds aren’t focused, if we are open to distractionlike that missing roofthen the distractions will fall in and ruin our prayers.

Another metaphor that he offers is inviting your boss to dinner. Suppose, hoping for a promotion and wanting to make a good impression, you invite your boss to dinner. Except you suddenly have a scheduling conflict. So you set the table, put out the food, and leave a sign on the door to explain your absence and to invite your boss to make himself at home. The dinner is there, the guest has arrived, but the head of the table is missing.

So, too, the prayer is there, the book is there, the synagogue is there, but if the mind isn’t focused, the head is missing.4

This is why we need to be jolted back to our prayers from time to time. It is not surprising that the mind wanders, but when we notice that it’s doing so, it is incumbent on us to bring ourselves back. This is the deeper meaning of the word, Shema. Listen. Pay attention. You might have been distracted for the last few minutes, but this is important; now it’s time to focus.

Gather Your Soul

A more mystical way of putting it is to gather the scattered dimensions of our soul.5 The word Shema means to listen, but it can also mean “to gather.” It is only used in this context on rare occasions,6 but it is one of the word’s alternate meanings.

When we speak of our faith in G‑d, we want it to permeate every level of our being. We want to declare our faith with our minds, emotions and psyche. We want it to percolate through our thoughts, words and actions. We want it to reach our inner depths. It comes from the essence and should be all pervasive.

Shema: Gather all the elements of your being and proclaim as a single organism that G‑d is one.

Welcome Home

The Baal Shem Tov taught that we are, where our thoughts are.7 If I am thinking about home, I am at home. If I am thinking about Spain, I am in Spain. If my thoughts are in Australia, that is where I am.

A well-known rabbi would stand at the exit of the sanctuary after prayer to bid everyone a good day. He once noticed that one of his congregants was distracted during prayer, and when he greeted him later at the door, he said: “Welcome home.” The man was surprised because he hadn’t traveled anywhere. But the rabbi explained, we are where our thoughts are, and during prayer your thoughts were all over the world. You have now returned home.

Indeed, during the course of prayer, we might visit multiple cities. Part of us might be in Israel, another part in Romania and yet another part in Cleveland. You might have touched down in Europe, passed over Asia and paid a visit to New Zealand.

If, at that moment, someone tells you listen, it would be in vain. How could you listen to one person in one place if you are in so many places?

This is why Shema has two meanings. First, to gather; then to listen. Gather your thoughts and all your dimensions, so that you are in one place and ready to focus. Now that you have returned, now that you are here, welcome home. We are about to declare our faith in G‑d. G‑d is our Lord, G‑d is one. So Shema, pay attention. It is time to listen.