In a desperate attempt to save their children from the Holocaust, many parents turned their children over to local Christian orphanages. There they would be protected, nourished, and nurtured, until such time they could return to retrieve their babies. Sadly, the vast majority of these Jews were murdered in the camps, and never came back.
Following the war, Rabbi Eliezer Silver made it his life’s mission to rescue these children. He located every orphanage in Europe and went from one to the next asking if they had harboured any of the young ones. Unbelievably adding insult to injury, many of the orphanages – gratified to have converted these innocent souls to Christianity – denied their presence.
But their denial did not deter Rabbi Silver. Without waiting for their acquiescence, he would walk into the dining room and cry out, “Shema Yisrael Ado-nai Elo-heinu Ado-nai echad!” Now, which Jewish child was not serenaded to sleep as a baby with the words of Shema Yisrael? And the Yiddishe kinderlach would hear the familiar refrain and run up to the rabbi, responding with the second verse of the Shema, “Baruch shem kevod malchuso le’olam vaed,” thereby revealing their identity and enabling their redemption from the spiritual destruction that otherwise would have been their fate.
From when may one recite the Shema in the evening?
According to Rabbi Eliezer: From the time that the cohanim (priests) enter to eat their terumah (tithes). When do they eat their terumah? From the time of the appearance of the stars – if they were impure, they must immerse in the mikvah during the day, following which they may not partake of the terumah until the sun sets.
According to Rabbi Chanina: From the time that a poor man enters to eat his bread dipped in salt.
According to Rabbi Meir: From the time people enter to eat their bread on Erev Shabbos (Friday night).
The Talmud opens with the fundamentals of Judaism. How do you be a good Jew? How do you have a relationship with Heaven? The most basic of all Jewish prayers is the Shema, our declaration of the unity of Hashem. The Torah instructs us to recite the Shema twice a day, “when you lie down (at night) and when you rise (in the morning).”
Straight out of the gate, the Talmud informs us how to go about reciting the Shema at night. When things are going well – during the daytime of life – it’s easy to profess your faith and to maintain your relationship with G-d. But how do you keep the faith at night – during the challenging times, when G-d seems to be hiding His face? When life gets tough, what’s the secret to remaining one with the Almighty?
The Gemara offers a number of approaches. First, we have Rabbi Eliezer’s advice: you can’t just wait for nightfall to eat your holy food. You need to purify yourself during the day. And then when night arrives, you’ll be pure and able to sustain yourself with the Heavenly tithes. In other words, when life is good, when things are going well, you need to train yourself to thank Hashem constantly for all His kindnesses. Turn your eyes Heavenward and say, “Thank you for all the good You have bestowed upon me!” When you get in the habit of appreciating all your blessings, then when life’s challenges strike, you’ll focus on the good things and your faith will allow you to rise above the difficulties.
Purity doesn’t come naturally. Having a healthy relationship with Heaven is a learned experience. It takes a lifetime of training and self-mastery.
Next, we have Rabbi Chanina who instructs us that we may not recite the Shema until the poor person has eaten. Do you want a relationship with G-d? First make sure you’ve taken care of His children. Spirituality isn’t about you and your holy bubble, it’s about making this world a palace for the King of Kings. What’s more, once you recognize that any challenges you may be facing in life are minor, compared to those unfortunate souls who live a life full of ‘darkness’ and difficulty, it becomes much easier to welcome Hashem into your life.
Our Sages contrast Noach and Avraham, employing an analogy of a freezing room. Noach and his wife Naama were happy to enter the Ark with just their immediate family, with little regard for the thousands of casualties around them. By contrast, Avraham and Sarah dedicated their lives to teaching everyone about G-d. In a freezing room, Noach would have donned his fur coat. Avraham would have installed a heating system, warming up the room for all to enjoy.
That’s what the Almighty wants in a relationship. Don’t just profess your faith, demonstrate it! How? By feeding those who need physical or spiritual sustenance. Once you’ve made sure that the poor man is eating his meagre bread dipped in salt, you can turn to Heaven with your spiritual and physical needs.
And finally, we have the advice of Rabbi Meir. It’s been a long, hard week. You’ve lit the candles and ushered in the Shabbat. You’re ready to put your feet up and take that well-earned rest. Just like G-d. You can imagine how exhausted He must have been on that first Shabbat. He’d just created a universe! And so He took the day off and relaxed.
Chas v’shalom! (Heaven forbid!) Of course He didn’t put His feet up! Sure, He concluded the process of creation, but had he stopped managing and maintaining the world even for a moment, the entire universe would have immediately ceased to exist.
Likewise, Rabbi Meir reminds us that even when Shabbos rolls around, you can’t stop dedicating yourself to Heaven. You can retire from your law practice, but you never retire from your Jewish practice. Just when you thought you were ready to enjoy the ‘Sabbath’ meal period of your life, to sit back and relish the fruits of your labour, you’re reminded that you still have the Shema to recite.
You might think you’ve achieved everything you set out to accomplish in life. You’ve completed your physical and spiritual mission. You worked hard. You put your time into Torah learning, shul committees and communal boards. It’s time for the young ones to step up. It’s their turn.
But as long as you’re still here on Earth, the Almighty has more for you to accomplish! The meal can wait, now’s the time to recite the Shema – to dedicate and rededicate yourself constantly to the service of the King of Kings. You’re almost at the Shabbat meal, but you’re not quite there yet. Forever knowing that you haven’t quite reached the destination will empower and embolden you to continue to develop spiritually, making your bond with Heaven grow ever stronger!
Merely paying lip service to the Shema isn’t enough. If you want a real relationship with Heaven, you need to pay attention to the fundamentals. Train yourself to trust in the Almighty during the day and you will have a much easier time maintaining your faith in the night. Always remember that the road to reach the King of Kings is via His children – treat them well as you would expect princes and princesses should be treated. And never stop striving higher and higher, maximizing every precious moment of life. May you merit a life infused with spirituality and a deep, unbreakable bond with Heaven!