“Pharaoh was only a foot tall, right, Aba?” my yeshiva bachur asked me recently.
“And King Og was a mile tall, right?” I replied.
“I guess that must be hyperbole,” he admitted. “Why then, as children, were we taught these myths as fundamental pieces of the Bible stories?”
“Hear O Israel, Hashem is our G-d, Hashem is one.” Up until this point of the Shema, one must maintain complete focus (to fulfil one’s obligation).
The recitation of the Shema must be as it is written (in Hebrew). This is Rebbe’s opinion. And the Sages say: Any language. What is their reason? For it says, “Hear,” implying any language you hear.
Why is it so important to focus on the first line of the Shema? Because it contains the building blocks for the entire Shema. The first line consists of three parts:
Hear O Israel
Hashem is our G-d
Hashem is one
Once you have the meaning of those three concepts clear, the rest of the Shema will flow naturally.
Step 1 is to recognize our mission as members of the Jewish people. You’re not on this mission alone. You have a team of people that you must work alongside and be responsible for. Some of your teammates are present today, others existed in previous generations, and others have yet to appear. The first paragraph of the Shema enjoins us to love Hashem and pass on the message to the next generation. Our Sages explain, “And you shall teach them to your children,” means, ‘teach your students.’ Anyone you teach becomes your link in the chain of our tradition that you’re sending into the future. Your spiritual mission needs to be signposted upon your body and home, a message that you’re there to share the light with all those who enter your sphere of potential influence.
Step 2 is to recognize that Hashem is “our G-d.” He has a personal relationship with you and He cares about everything you do. Once you acknowledge that He is intimately involved in your life, you accept the notion that everything happens for a reason, which is the basis of the second paragraph of the Shema.
Step 3 is to recognize that the entire universe is Divine. Nothing exists outside of G-d. G-d is one and therefore everything that exists is part of His unity. A symbol of G-d’s Omnipresence is the tzitzit, which surrounds us in every direction, constantly reminding us that we have a mission to fulfil and anytime we stray from our mission, we are wavering from our commitment to the unity of G-d. To contravene His will is essentially questioning His oneness. How could we do anything He doesn’t approve of, if nothing exists beyond His utter unity?
Focusing on the first line of the Shema lays the groundwork for our kavana (focus) for the entire Shema. Once we’ve laid the foundations, everything else falls into place. It might not make a lot of sense when it’s condensed into one line, but it’s just like many aspects of life that we condense into shorthand. When you put the right pieces at the base of the structure, everything else will hold up. If the foundation is shaky, nothing you place on top of it will be stable. The first line of the Shema is the solid foundation that sets the scene for everything that follows.
That’s why it’s so important that we provide a solid foundation for our children in terms of their Jewish education. They won’t comprehend everything today, but providing them with the correct building blocks today will give them the tools to have the right understanding once they mature. Midrashic tales of unbelievably tall and short characters may sound strange to an adult mind. We convey these shorthand stories to our children as basic facts of the narrative, however, because their innocent minds with their wonderful imaginations will vividly recall those ‘tall’ stories forever. And once the building blocks are solid, they’ll be able to make sense of them and expand upon their understanding when they are ready.
The child whose parents or teachers denies them the ‘tall’ stories, for fear of confusing their tender minds with grey areas combining peshat (simple) and midrashic (allegoric) explanations, risks missing out on a certain element of the tradition, no less fundamental. When we lay the shorthand groundwork, it may make little sense to them right now. But it provides the foundation to expand their understanding as they progress through life.
There’s a time in life for shorthand, and there’s a time in life for comprehensive understanding. The duty to focus on the first line of the Shema reminds us that condensing the story into soundbites is acceptable, as long as we remember to ‘unzip the file’ in due course. May you always lay the right foundations and may you constantly strive to expand upon those foundations for a wider and deeper appreciation of the Torah you have gained!