Shema Yisroel Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad... Listen Israel, G‑d is our L‑rd, G‑d is One. (Deut. 6:4)

These words, a highlight of our daily prayers, express powerful pearls of faith. They have been whispered throughout the ages, in times of grave challenge, in dark hidden cellars, by those breathing their last breath, at an auto da fé in Spain or in a gas chamber in Nazi Germany.

These are also words of hope and happiness, sung in joy while celebrating significant milestones.

But I didn't expect to read these Hebrew words in a timeless best-selling classic, a book on psychology that has been touted by the Library of Congress as one of the ten most influential books in America.

Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl has sold more than twelve million copies worldwide. Frankl describes his experiences in the Nazi concentration camps. But more than his travails, he writes as a psychologist about what gave him the strength to survive.

Frankl poignantly describes how prisoners who gave up on life and hope for a future were inevitably the first to die. They died less from lack of food than from lack of something to live for. By contrast, Frankl kept himself alive by thinking of his wife and dreaming of lecturing about how his experiences reinforced what was already a central part of his thesis before entering the camps – that the primary motivational force of every person is a search for meaning.

A strong underlying thread is the strength, fortitude, and love that he drew from his faith.

He writes: "G‑d is not dead, not even 'after Auschwitz.' For belief in G‑d is unconditional or it is not belief at all. If it is unconditional, it will stand and face the fact that six million died in the Nazi Holocaust; if it is not unconditional then it will fall away if only a single innocent child has to die... "

Shortly after arriving at Auschwitz, Frankl was stripped of his most precious possession—a manuscript that was his life's work, which he had hidden in his coat pocket. Realizing that the odds of his survival were small, "no more than one in twenty-eight," he had what he describes as "perhaps his deepest experience in the concentration camps."

"I had to undergo and overcome the loss of my mental child. And now it seemed as if nothing and no one would survive me; neither a physical nor a mental child of my own. So I found myself confronted with the question whether under such circumstances my life was ultimately void of meaning.

"An answer to this question with which I was wrestling so passionately was already in store for me…This was the case when I had to surrender my clothes and in turn inherited the worn-out rags of an inmate who had already been sent to the gas chamber...Instead of the many pages of my manuscript, I found in a pocket of the newly acquired coat one single page torn out of a Hebrew prayer book, containing the most important Jewish prayer, Shema Yisroel.

“How should I have interpreted such a "coincidence" other than as a challenge to live my thoughts instead of merely putting them on paper?"

And then in the concluding sentence, Frankl again draws on this timeless proclamation of faith.

"Our generation is realistic, for we have come to know man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright with the L‑rd's prayer or the Shema Yisroel on his lips."


What is it about the Shema Yisroel prayer that has inspired so many through the most trying of times and has provided such meaning and purpose to help us survive even the most despairing circumstances?

I think aside from its simple assertion of belief in a single, higher power and the deep mystical meaning hidden within the words of this special prayer, there are four key psychological elements that have made it our bedrock of faith:

1) Relevance: Listen, Israel—A religion or way of life cannot start and end with theories; it must also address the humanness within us. The Shema does not begin in the realm of ideology, in the heavens, with a depersonalized statement of faith. It speaks by addressing each and every one of us. Listen, Israel, listen to this message, and make it a part of your being, because this is not speaking above you, not at you, but calling to you.

2) Belonging: The Shema prayer is in plural ("our G‑d" and not "my G‑d"), spoken as a collective group, addressing us all as Israelites. Human beings have a need to identify with one another. We gain strength from one another and fortitude from being a part of something greater than ourselves. More attractive than ideology is a sense of belonging to one extended family – despite barriers. That sense of community is one of our strongest assets.

3) Personalization: G‑d is our G‑d. G‑d is "ours." G‑d, Who is transcendental and infinite, is also our personal G‑d, Who is with us at every moment in time, holding us in times of celebration as well as times of despair. G‑d is not just an objective ruler, creating and regulating the cosmos. He is "ours," near to us, subjectively understanding the deepest part of ourselves, more than we do.

4) Individuality: As much as we need a sense of belonging and community, we must not negate our individual differences. The Shema statement ends with the words "G‑d is one" (rather than G‑d is "singular" or "alone"). One, the first of the numbers, teaches that G‑d is present within the diversity of the world. While conformity stunts growth, the "oneness of G‑d" should empower us to discover and cultivate the G‑dly oneness and uniqueness within each of us.


A basis of Frankl's theory is that forces beyond our control can take away everything we possess except one thing—our freedom to choose how we will respond to the situation.

After describing the anguish of his experiences in Auschwitz, Frankl concludes his personal memoir: "The crowning experience of all, for the homecoming man, is the wonderful feeling that after all he has suffered, there is nothing he need fear any more—except his G‑d."

That can become our most empowering credo.