A Hope and a Prayer by Rabbi Darren Blackstein


Parshat Vaetchanan contains what many would consider to be the most famous and perhaps meaningful verse in our theology, the Shema. One would imagine that such an important verse would carry with it a clear message, free from the normal array of opinions that accompany other verses. This is only partially true. While this verse does carry with it the clear message of Hashem's unity, it also carries with it many ways for this message to be taken.

Rashi explains that the Shema tells us that at this time in history, only our people recognize that Hashem is God (“Elokeinu”). There will come a time when the whole world will come to this realization and accept that Hashem is the One true Deity. Rashi seems to understand the Shema primarily as a message of hope for the future. Being the chosen people may be a privilege, but the inherent loneliness is troubling. Ideally, Hashem should enjoy the worship of all people; it would seem a lack of honor to give Hashem anything less. Indeed, this verse has become a prayer that represents the eternal hope that we all have for a time when all mankind can unite and, in turn, reflect the unity of Hashem.

Whereas Rashi entertains a worldview based on the Shema, the Sforno tells us that the Shema is a statement containing truths which must be deeply contemplated. The Shema is a message to Bnei Yisrael urging us to accept Hashem as the Creator upon whom all existence depends. Since all existence stems from Hashem, He is the only one to whom it makes sense to pray. With this idea in mind, we can then contemplate the unique quality of Hashem as the only being responsible for all existence, thereby testifying to His singularity. There is no other being like Him and His unity cannot be matched. We see, according to the Sforno, that the Shema contains personal ideas of religious depth that must be meditated upon and analyzed over and over as we accept the yoke of Hashem's kingdom. As a vehicle for prayer, this verse is crucial in our attempt to connect with the Almighty and to feel His presence.

While these are only two opinions about the functionality of the Shema, we can readily see that the Shema is meant for us to use, not only in a personal way, but also in a way that helps us have more positive contact with the world around us. May we all merit to focus on this verse in our davening and experience the contributions it can make in our lives.

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