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Shabbat Parashat Ki Tavo 5776

Parashat Hashavua: Shema Yisrael One G-d, Three Contexts

Harav Yosef Carmel

The expression “Shema Yisrael (Hear, Israel),” which we use morning and night to introduce our acceptance of the yoke of the Heavenly Kingdom, has turned into a symbol of Jewish life. Every Jewish child, from a very young age, knows these words. Many know the heart-wrenching story of Chief Rabbi Herzog [and/or Rav Eliezer Silver and Rav Yosef Kahaneman] who discovered Jewish children whose identities were hidden by nuns after the Holocaust, by singing “Shema Yisrael” as the children prepared for sleep, bringing many to remember their parents.

Let us try to determine how the Torah uses these ostensibly introductory words to teach additional spiritual messages. Of course, the most famous usage is with the continuation, “Hashem is our G-d, Hashem is one” (Devarim 6:4). However, it also introduces other Torah statements.

“Hashem called to all of Israel and said to them: ‘Hear Israel, the statutes and the ordinances that I am speaking in your ears today, and you shall teach them and guard them to follow them’” (Devarim 5:1). Another one is: “Hear, Israel, you are passing the Jordan today to replace great nations … and you should know today that Hashem is He who goes before you; He will destroy them…” (Devarim 9:1-3). Later on in Devarim (20:3-4), the Torah says: “He [the kohen] will say to them: ‘Hear, Israel, you are going out to battle today against your enemies; let your hearts not be weak … for Hashem, your G-d is He who goes before you to fight on your behalf against your enemies to save you.’”

The last appearance of “Shema Yisrael” is in our parasha: “Moshe and the kohanim, the levi’im, spoke to all of Israel: ‘Concentrate and hear, Israel: this day you have become a nation to Hashem, your G-d’” (ibid. 27:9).

If we take a look at these four usages of the phrase “Shema Yisrael,” we will see that the subject matters in these contexts are the three critically interlocked foundations of our unique relationship with Hashem. The first and most famous context relates to the basis of the Torah of Israel. The next two sources have to do with the importance of the Land of Israel in our national lives. The final one has to do with our unique status as a nation singled out by Hashem. The fact that each of these ideas is introduced in this dramatic manner shows its importance as ideas that are the bases for our whole Jewish belief.

As the Day of Judgment approaches, let us pray that more and more people in our nation will be strengthened in their belief in these principles.

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