The Shema – A Last Hope of Salvation For All the Generations
Jacob had not seen his son Joseph for 22 years. In fact he thought that Joseph had been torn apart by a wild animal, and he had already mourned for him. However his suffering finally came to an end. When his sons returned home from Egypt, Serach the daughter of Asher played a song on the harp, a song in which she suggested that “Joseph is still alive, and he rules all the land of Egypt.” When Jacob heard this good news, he immediately prepared himself to travel to Egypt and meet his son Joseph.
The Torah describes the emotional reunion between father and son: “Joseph prepared his chariot, and went up to meet Israel his father, to Goshen. He presented himself to him and fell on his neck, and he wept on his neck a good while” (Genesis 46:29). Although Joseph wept, what was Jacob doing at the time? The Torah does not say, but the Sages tell us that Jacob did not weep on Joseph’s neck. Instead, he recited the Shema at that point (Midrash Aggadah, ad loc.).
Let us try and picture it. After 22 years, during which time Jacob and Joseph did not see each other, was it possible that Jacob was not deeply moved upon seeing his son? Is it possible that he was content on reciting the Shema? Why did he not recite it later on, after his encounter with Joseph? Furthermore, why was it only Jacob who recited the Shema? Why did Joseph not recite it as well?
Let us consider the basis for reciting the Shema. The Sages say that the foundation of the Shema is that every man must give his life for the sanctification of G-d’s Name, to that point that he must feel it at each instant and be ready to give his body and soul to sanctify it (Sifri Devarim). However we still need to understand how a person can prove that he is ready to give his life for Hashem. Perhaps someone is doing it for show, and when the time comes for action he will not be ready to give his life for G-d. Perhaps everything is but deception on his part.
We know that if someone wants to give his life for Hashem, he must try to emulate Him, meaning to emulate Him in all deeds and conduct. The Sages have said that Hashem asks us to be merciful just as He is merciful, to have pity on creatures just has He has pity on creatures. When a person acts in this way, it clearly proves to everyone that he truly loves Hashem. If he loves his fellowman and is truly prepared to give his life for others, to help them both materially and spiritually, this means that he also loves G-d and will be ready to give his life for Him.
This is why, when Jacob encountered Joseph, it was precisely at that point that he recited the Shema. By doing so, he wanted to teach his children a lesson for all the generations, which is that they would not have sold their brother Joseph if they had truly loved one another. If they had been ready to give their lives for G-d, they would have been ready to give their lives for their brother. If they had conducted themselves in this way, they would not have ended up selling Joseph. Thus Jacob wanted to teach them a way of life that was valid for all time: The way of loving one’s fellowman and giving one’s life for him, for that is the foundation of the Shema.
This principle of the Shema has supported the Jewish people throughout the generations, especially during the Second World War, the years of the Holocaust, when Jews were led to the ovens with the Shema on their lips. Who knows as well as we do how much self-denial was required during those years. Jews shared their last piece of bread with their friends, which clearly proved that each person was ready to give his life for the other. From that came the will and the ability to give one’s life for Hashem.
This is the place to briefly recount a well-known story that happened immediately after the Holocaust. Several rabbis wanted to rescue children from the Church, but the question was how. One priest from a church mission that housed Jewish children asked them how they knew who exactly was Jewish and who was not. The rabbis did not know how to respond, and so the Holy One, blessed be He, gave them some help. An idea arose in the mind of one rabbi, who said: “We will come back when the children are ready to go to sleep, and we will show you then.”
At seven o’clock that night, when all the children were in bed, the rabbis arrived at the mission. One of them got up on a small chair in the middle of the dormitory and shouted: “Shema Israel, Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Echad!” Many of the children began to cry at that exact moment, for the Shema reminded them of their homes. They remembered their Jewish mothers reciting the Shema with them when they went to sleep, and thus the rabbis were able to rescue the Jewish children from confinement in the mission.
From this we see just how powerful the Shema is. In every generation the Shema has been the symbol of the martyr, the symbol of love for the Jewish people and for Hashem, and the symbol of devotion to others and to Hashem. There is a reason why today there are a million Jewish children who, unfortunately, do not know what Shema Israel is, a fact that we are well aware of. These children think neither of others, nor of Hashem, but mainly of themselves.
The tremendous power of the Shema can save the Jewish people from its enemies, and it can save Jews from the Church. This is why each person should strengthen his fellowman in this important mitzvah, for then our reward will be great.