Parshas Vaeschanan

This week’s Parsha is Parshas Vaeschanan. It is also known as Shabbos Nachamu, being the Shabbos after Tisha B’av. In this weeks Parsha, we have one of the most famous portions of the Torah – the Shema. Thousands of Jews, throughout the generations, have died with the Shema on their lips. Let us examine a little about the Shema, and try to understand why it is so central to Jewish thought.

The first verse of this paragraph is the actual Shema, declaring our absolute belief in one and only one G-d. The next verse is the commandment to Love G-d “with all your heart, with all your life, and with all your possessions.“ This verse is central to the idea of Shema, as we are instructed to have in mind every time that we say Shema that we are willing to give everything that we have, life or wealth, for the sake of G-d.

The Talmud recounts the story of the death of the fames sage Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Akiva was the leader of his generation. The Romans, who had taken over the land of Israel and ruled it with an iron fist, decreed that anyone who studied or taught Torah would be put to death. Rabbi Akiva proceeded to ignore this decree, and to teach Torah in public. When he was caught, the Romans sentenced him to die. When they took him out to die, they proceeded to torture him, combing his skin off with metal combs. As this was done to him, Rabbi Akiva proceeded to say the Shema. His students, watching the brave reaction of their teacher, were amazed. They asked him, “To this point – how are you able to control yourself”? Rabbi Akiva answered, “My whole life I have been in anguish to fulfill this verse, and now that it has come to me I should not fulfill it?

What did Rabbi Akiva mean by saying “my whole life I have been in anguish over this verse”? The idea is explained by the commentaries, who tell us that Rabbi Akiva was referring to this mitzvah, when a Jew says I will love Hashem with all my soul”. That declaration is not just empty words. It is a statement from the depths of the heart. If a Jew says that, and means it, then all the challenges that come his or her way are looked at very differently. If I am ready to give my life for the sake of Hashem, then certainly I should feel ready to give some energy, certainly I am ready even if an expense will be incurred in serving Hashem, and certainly I am ready to serve him if my personal honor has to be forgotten about. This was the training that Rabbi Akiva gave himself. All the years of his life, every time he said the Shema, he had in mind this idea – he is committing to love Hashem at all times, no matter what the cost or price tag.

The mitzvah of saying Shema is something we are commanded to due twice a day, in the morning and in the evening. We are supposed to say the words slowly, carefully, as though we are reading an urgent message from a king or President. More than that, we have to think about what we are really saying. If we recite the Shema with serious thought, with real energy, then we are opening the door to lifting our life, to making it more meaningful and fulfilling, and to serving Hahsem the way we are really supposed to.