One of my favorite duties as a cantor is to sing with the preschool students. I find it fascinating to see how they learn the songs and become more and more involved in our singing sessions over time. To watch children grow in this way, for me, is witnessing a slow moving miracle. I am amazed as to how much a two, three, four, or five year old can retain.
At our congregation, at the end of year ceremony, the students moving up to Kindergarten learn the Israeli national anthem, Hatikvah. In front of their parents and relatives they sing it in perfect Hebrew, loud and proud. This seems to me to embody the very idea of the song, hope. As long as there is a growing early childhood education center, the future of our heritage remains intact because the values that Judaism has carried for thousands of years are being instilled in the hearts and minds of the younglings.
As a cantor and wanna-be-Kabbalist it is not enough for me to teach and sing songs. I need to create for them, through music, a mini liturgical moment. To that end I have been in the habit of leaving the last seven minutes for singing about gratitude and peace and having the children close their eyes and sing the six words of the Sh’ma with me. I don’t spend a lot of time talking about theories of the spiritual power of chanting our Watchword of Faith; they’re only four years old. Instead it remains as ritual, unquestioned by the students who diligently sound the words. As we sing Shalom Chaveirim (Goodbye, Friends) and they each personally say goodbye to me, I am hopeful that these moments play an important part in their spiritual development. I also find that leading other humans in singing the Sh’ma is an important part of my spiritual development.
The Torah instructs us to say our Hebrew affirmation twice a day, when we lie down and when we rise up. Why is it so important in our practice of Judaism to say these ancient words in the evening and morning? Is the Sh’ma a standard prayer that we direct at the Eternal Creator? No. These words, which originate in the book of Deuteronomy, are aimed at us. We, the people who wrestle with our concepts of the Creator, are required to end and begin each day acknowledging that as Israel we understand that each and every person’s individual experience of God is the one and the same God. What do the words of this Jewish mantra mean?
Sh’ma Yisrael – Understand, oh God-Wrestler, YHVH Eloheinu – the Creator that Was, Is, and Will Be (eternal) is our God, YHVH Echad – the Eternal is the one and only existence.
The words from the last book of the Torah are dense and esoteric. We find in the Torah, and specifically in the Sh’ma, the four-letter name of the Creator, YHVH, that is not pronounced according to the actual Hebrew letters. Rather, we substitute the word “Adonai” which means “my Lord.” We usually explain the Sh’ma as a statement, that there is only one God, but this doesn’t inform us as to how the experience of God manifests in real life. For many, God is up and out “there,” an ambiguous entity that may or may not have anything to do with our lives.
The words of the Sh’ma are elucidated by six more words, not in the Torah, that are found in the prayer book among the order of our prayers, and is central to a major rubric of Jewish liturgy. Traditionally, these words, Baruch Sheim K’vod Malchuto L’olam Va-ed – which can be translated as, “Blessed is the glorious Name, His Kingdom is eternal,” are said quietly to oneself, continuing to focus the Sh’ma on us.
The Chasidic systems of Chabad, and Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav explain that the Sh’ma reveals an upper and lower truth. Perhaps the Sh’ma is not exactly saying that, “There is only one God.” This interpretation doesn’t make sense in mystical schools of thought because it doesn’t rule out the possibility that something exists outside of the Creator. If the Creator were truly One there could not be anything else that exists outside of It. The idea that God is the only thing that exists is the upper truth.
When we say, “Baruch Sheim K’vod – Blessed in the glorious Name,” the word Sheim is code for the multiplicity and manifestation of the Creator in the universe as all matter and experiences. This manifestation, also called “Malchuto – His Kingdom,” is “l’olam va-ed – eternal,” or for some, “His Kingdom is over all space and time.” Essentially, all that is experienced in physicality and temporality is a constant emanation from the Eternal Creator. This is the lower truth.
When we say the Sh’ma we are making what is called “unifications.” A unification is made when we are in balance and experience the upper and lower truths as the same. We understand that everything is God, the immanent and transcendent, the sacred and secular, positivity and negativity. Everything manifests from God as God. There is no separation. This realization is the mystical goal of saying the Sh’ma and it is why I insist on getting everyone I can to say the ancient mantra; fulfilling the mitzvah of getting others to do a mitzvah. These words, in a Jewish life, are so powerfully important that they are to be the last words one would say right before their death.
An obscure Jewish joke portrays a rabbi and an Israeli bus driver, who recently passed away, waiting to gain entrance into the afterlife. Israeli bus drivers are notorious for being aggressive drivers with little adherence to traffic rules. Anyway, the bus driver is immediately escorted through the gates while the rabbi is on the waiting list. When the rabbi inquires why the bus driver gets preferential treatment he is told that, comparatively, the driver got more people than him to say the Sh’ma.
Because of life’s uncertainties and ever changing agenda we may never know the exact moment of our death. As the words of the Sh’ma should be the last words out of a Jewish mouth it makes logical sense to not only say the Sh’ma in the evening and the morning but in every moment that we are aware in our consciousness and of our very existence. Of course it may be impossible to say the words at all times but when we become woke it’s nice to acknowledge our lives as a manifestation of the Creator. This is a high spiritual state of mind and I hope, by continuing to lead people in the Sh’ma, that my self and my students will hopefully reach this divine truth, the upper and the lower.