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"And I implored God at that time, saying: My Lord, God, You have begun to show Your servant your greatness and Your strong hand, for what power is there in the heavens or on the earth that can perform according to Your deeds and according to Your mighty acts? Let me now cross and see the good land that is on the other side of the Jordan, this good mountain and the Lebanon." (Deut. 2:23-25)
Rashi tells us that the Hebrew word v'etchanan, "and I implored," taken from the root techina, is one of the ten terms meaning "prayer" in the Hebrew language. This particular word is employed to describe prayers that are offered to solicit undeserved favors. According to Rashi, Moses deliberately selected this mode of prayer as a matter of principle. 'Even though the righteous are in a position to ask God to grant their requests in return for their good deeds, that is not their way; thus Moses deliberately beseeched God to allow him into Israel as an undeserved favor instead of asking for it as a reward for his good deeds'.
As Rashi stresses that he refrained from demanding entry as a deserved reward only on principle, it would appear that Moses was in a position to couch his request in terms of a demand had he so desired. Apparently, the combined weight of his good deeds was more than sufficient to have his request honored as a matter of right. And yet, even after God turned down his prayer Moses still refrained from insisting on his rights. Why?
Isn't the whole point of living in this world to earn spiritual rewards through our Divine service? After all, as the Talmud says, why did Moses wish to enter Israel in the first place? Was it to eat from its fruit or to have his fill of its bounty? [Of course not!] This is what Moses said, "Israel was commanded to do many Mitzvot that can only be fulfilled on the soil of the land of Israel. Let me enter the land so that I have the chance to fulfill them all personally." (Talmud, Sotah 14a)
What is the point of all our efforts if in the end we do not obtain the spiritual rewards that we have earned by the sweat of our brow? Why didn't Moses cash in a part of his earnings in this world, as he was surely willing to do? Does it have something to do with the essential nature of prayer?
In fact, let us broaden the question a bit to embrace all prayer. Why do we pray to God at all?
WHY DO WE PRAY
If we believe as we do, that all people get what they deserve through a process of Divine Providence, which also places everyone in precisely the correct life-situation to be able to accomplish the tasks he or she was sent to this world to accomplish, what is the need for prayer? Moreover, how can prayer accomplish anything? If we deserve to have what we pray for, or if we need it to carry out our life-task, then presumably we will receive it without having to pray for it, and if we do not deserve it, or if we do not need to have it, how can our prayers possibly get it for us?
Let us begin at the beginning. One of the best-known Torah commandments originates in this week's Torah portion. Every one of us has a Mitzvah to accept the 'yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven' upon ourselves daily. We fulfill this mitzvah by reciting the Shema twice a day; the essence of the fulfillment is in the recital of the passage that begins with" "Hear, O Israel; the Lord is our God, the Lord is the One and Only" (Deut. 6:4), and this very first verse is the essence of the essence. Jewish tradition teaches that the six words of this single verse encapsulate the concept of the "yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven" perfectly. In fact it is the second sentence that a father is told to teach his child as soon as he learns to speak. (Talmud, Succah 42a)
This verse is clearly a declaration of the acceptance of God's essential unity. How/where is the idea of the Kingdom of Heaven encapsulated within a statement concerning God's essential unity?
It seems that Rashi was troubled by this question, and he seems to be focused on answering it in his translation of the verse: "The Lord who is our God [Israel] only at this era in history, and not the God of the nations, is destined to be the only God, accepted by all of humanity at the end of days." In other words, according to Rashi, when we state that God is One, we mean to say that despite the multiplicity of divinities in the world at the present time, there is only one God rather than two or three gods, and this truth will eventually be accepted by all. But even according to this interpretation the conceptual link between the two ideas, the idea of God's essential unity, and the exclusivity of His monarchy is far from clear.
Let us begin by analyzing the deeper implications of the concept that God is One.
GOD IS ONE
The commentators explain (see Nefesh Hachaim, Gate 3) that the statement amounts to a declaration that there is no other existence besides God. To us it appears that we ourselves, and the universe we occupy, also exist side by side with God. God may have created us and our universe, but after the initial act of creation the things and creatures that God created also exist as part of reality. If we unravel the implications of this observation we will see that there is actually a duality of Divinity following creation. There is God, and there is the universe and everything in it, especially ourselves, and these are also God in a way.
This implication arises from the fact that everything God created was formed out of Divine energy. The created universe is actually nothing more than packaged Divine Energy. God is therefore no longer One, but has become two. There is still God Himself, and there is also His Divine energy in the universe and this is no longer God, for it has separated from His essence through His will and formed a separate reality, the universe and ourselves. [There are obviously some very deep philosophical issues behind the information in this short paragraph; this is not the forum to explore them.]
Moreover, this apparent duality has even deeper implications. Not only does it appear that post-creation God is two, but adding insult to injury, it even seems as though God has lost control of the Divine energy that He invested in creation. This creative energy He invested in the universe has slipped away from God by His own consent. According to His own Torah, He gave human beings free will and thus placed the created universe under our control; in effect, he invested us with the power to control the world as we see fit up to and including its destruction.
No doubt God has the power to reclaim the reins if He should so desire, but the way things are at present He does not control the Universe; we human beings do. God's Dominion is presently limited to Himself. His control over the created universe is dependent on our voluntary acceptance of His will.
When we recite the Shema we reject this point of view. We state our conviction that even following creation things have not altered. There is no duality. There is only God and nothing else besides. But how can such a statement be true? Aren't we here as well?
THE WAY IT LOOKS FROM GOD'S CHAIR
The answer is relativity. The apparent duality is a result of the point of view of the observer, in this case ourselves. If we were able to look at the universe through God's glasses, as it were, we would find that the view was totally unchanged by creation. Just as there was nothing out there before creation other than God, there is nothing there now. This may be incomprehensible to us, but that is the declaration we make when we state that God is One.
We learned: "Hear O Israel the Lord is our God, the Lord is the One and Only." A person reciting the Shema must clearly know what he is saying and focus his mind on the idea behind the words until he finishes this verse (i.e. if he fails to do so, he must repeat the whole Shema once again; without proper focus on the meaning of the first verse, he has not fulfilled his obligation of recital)....
Rabbi Yirmiyah was sitting before Rabbi Chiya bar Abba; he observed that he took a really long time over the reciting of the word echad, meaning the One and Only. He told him, "As long as you had in mind to establish God as the King over the four corners of the universe as well as up above and down below, that is sufficient."
Explains Rashi: as long as you focus long enough to hold the thought in your heart that God is One in the Heavens and on the earth and in any of the four directions. (Talmud, Brachot 13b)
It is quite true that we are real and we are here, but we are looking at reality from our end. If we look from the opposite end and see it the way God sees it, we are not real and not here. He needs to bring us into being constantly without cease. It is little wonder that it turns out that physical reality is governed by the principle of Relativity. What we have described may seem bizarre at first glance but it differs very little in essence from Einstein's theory of Relativity, which is universally accepted as the bedrock of all physical science.
THE CONNECTION TO PRAYER
At this point we are ready to refocus on understanding prayer. Our prayer book was arranged so that we recite the Shema as a prelude to the Amidah, which is our main prayer. As long as we perceive ourselves as living in a dual universe, in which God and we co-exist, the rationale of prayer is cloudy at best. God created the universe and us human beings in it according to certain rules and regulations, and it is not easy for anyone including God to alter these rules. From our side at least, the laws of nature appear to be fixed; they cannot be tinkered with or the entire structure of reality as we understand it would crumble.
Yet, when we pray that is exactly what we are requesting of God; 'please God, tinker with the laws of the universe for our benefit'. Before we submit any requests to God, we first recite the Shema and accept upon ourselves the yoke of the Kingdom of heaven, the essential unity of God. We remind ourselves that God is One and not two, because from His standpoint, which is the standpoint from which He responds to our prayers, only He exists, and we and the universe do not. In fact, the universe and we along with it are constantly in the process of becoming, and the manner in which we become is very much influenced by our prayers. The true power of prayer is contained in the following thought. God takes our prayers and employs them to shape the universe.
From the standpoint of prayer nothing in the world is fixed. The unity of God implies that He constantly recreates existence and that He can therefore do so in the way He sees fit. In a universe that is only now taking shape, all things are possible. It can be brought into existence in a way that it will now contain exactly what we pray for. Moreover, this will not interfere with the chain of continuity between what was and what is, because the connection between the past and the present is only a matter of human perception and is relative to the way that we comprehend reality on our end.
WHEN REALITY BECOMES INFLEXIBLE
That is why it is wonderful to be alive. This flexibility of reality is there only as long as we are alive. When we pass out of this phase of our existence things do become fixed. At this point, the process of becoming ends, and the process of being begins.
All spiritual being is fundamentally based on some form of attachment to God's own being. In the post-death phase of our lives our continued existence no longer presents any apparent contradiction to God's unity. We are no longer separate bits of Divine energy wandering around loose, having slipped free of God's control. We have returned to the Source and finally become a portion of His own unity.
We have arrived at the correlation between Unity and Monarchy. The belief that God can do whatever He wants within His creation and therefore prayer can change the world and affect reality requires the prior acceptance of the idea of God's unity. Through the acceptance of the concept of unity, creation becomes a cooperative enterprise between ourselves and God, an enterprise in which our input is appreciated and desired.
A fascinating illustration of this concept is provided by the addition to the Shema that we recite in an undertone; "Blessed is the name of His glorious kingdom for all eternity." It is quite unusual to insert an extraneous sentence into a passage of the written Torah quoted verbatim; it is also quite striking that we recite this insert in an undertone except on Yom Kippur when we shout it at the top of our lungs.
Why do we say it? As Reish Lakish explained: It is written, Jacob called his sons and told them, "Gather together and I shall reveal to you..." (Genesis 49:1). Jacob wanted to reveal the End of Days to his children, but the Divine Presence left him before he could do so. He said, "Perhaps, God forbid, there is a rotten apple in my bed as was the case with my grandfather Abraham who had Ishmael, and my father Isaac who bore Esau!" His children reassured him. They said, "Hear O, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord the One and Only! Just as there is only One in your heart, there is only One in our hearts!" On the spot, Jacob started to say, "Blessed is the name of His glorious kingdom for all eternity!"
The rabbis deliberated, "What should we do? Shall we say it? Moses our teacher did not say it. Shall we not say it? Jacob did say it." They decided that it should be said, but quietly...
A metaphor that encapsulates the reasoning: Imagine a princess who grew fond of eating the residue at the bottom of the pot. If you say [bring it to her] she will be embarrassed. If you say [don't bring it to her], she will suffer. Her closest attendants started sneaking it to her quietly. (Talmud, Pesachim, 56a)
Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin unravels the concept for us in the Nefesh Hachaim (Gate 3, Ch.6z] God's Kingdom can only be appreciated in a created universe that exists in actuality. As long as He is One, and there is no other existence besides, he cannot be described as having a kingdom. But on the other hand, the existence of the universe as a separate reality, although it allows Him to have a kingdom, implies a duality that detracts from His absolute unity.
Our recognition that this duality is only there for the purpose of allowing the expression of His monarchy restores the integrity of the absoluteness of His unity. Our declaration amounts to a statement of our belief that the universe can never slip out of God's control. Its entire raison d'etre is to serve as an expression of God's monarchy. If it ever wandered away from doing His will as though it existed independently for its own sake, it would instantly cease to be altogether. That is the meaning of the inserted phrase "Blessed is the Name of His glorious kingdom for all eternity."
The reason for the metaphor of the dregs of the pot becomes obvious. The existence of God's Monarchy turns out to depend on lowly creatures such as ourselves who often do not even invest a great deal of their attention in its recognition. How embarrassing, but how necessary!
THE REST OF THE SHEMA
Now that we have begun explaining the Shema, it would be a pity to leave the topic before completing the thought. The remainder of the first paragraph is a set of instructions concerning how to demonstrate the principle of God's unity in our everyday lives.
"You shall love the Lord your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your resources."
"With all your heart": Every inclination you have, whether good or bad, has to be dedicated to God's service.
"With all your soul": In certain situations you have to sacrifice your life itself to sanctify God's Name.
"With all your resources": You have to surrender all your earthly goods rather than transgress against a negative Torah commandment.
"And these matters that I command you today shall be upon your heart" : You should always be thinking about what God expects of you in any situation you find yourself in by consulting His Torah.
"You shall teach them thoroughly to your children and you shall speak of them while you sit in your home, while you walk on the way, when you retire and when you arise" : Your conversation is always centered on the words of the Torah, and these are the words that are the basis of the communication between you and your children. Whoever spends time with you should be able to appreciate that God's commandments are the very focus of your existence.
"Bind them as a sign on your arm and let them be ornaments between your eyes. And write them on the doorposts of your house and upon your gates" : Whoever looks at a Jew on the street or whoever passes his house should be able to conclude instantly: here walks a servant of God, this is the home of a servant of God.
SERVANT OF GOD
In all his interactions with the world, the Jew lives by the Shema; his very existence proudly proclaims that he is God's servant and God is his true monarch. Everything that he possesses, everything that he is, proclaims God's kingdom. He is a living testament of God's unity. Indeed the last letter of the first word of the Shema is written extra-large - Ayin - and the last letter of the last word is written extra-large as well - Daled. These two letters spell the Hebrew word ed, meaning "witness." A Jew's very being is a living testament to God's unity.
Moses was on such a high level of spirituality that there was no clear break between his soul and God's Presence. About Moses it is written, "the Shechina [Divine presence] spoke from his throat" (see Rashi, Numbers 12:2). He literally experienced God's unity through connecting the core of his being to God. To him there was no other existence that had to be nullified. He did not need to comment on God's kingdom. He lived within God's unity.
Jacob was not on such a lofty level. He lived in the world. But he dedicated his entire existence and that of his family to the mission of teaching the world about God's unity by establishing his exclusive monarchy over all existence. It is he who first to declared "Blessed be the glory of the Name of His kingdom forever."
Moses did not request entry into Israel as a reward for his good deeds. If such entry would serve the advancement of the cause of establishing God's unity, God Himself would have suggested it. If God refused him entry, he understood that the world as it was presently shaped could not accommodate his presence in Israel in a positive way. Moses beseeched God to reshape the world, to bring it into being in a fashion that could promote God's purpose even if he fulfilled the Mitzvot that could only be preformed in the Holy Land. He had no wish to serve God unless his service advanced the cause of the spread of the kingdom of heaven.
The Jewish people read Ve'etchanan on the Sabbath following the 9th of Av. The Haftorah, from the Book of Isaiah, Chapter 40, begins:
"Be comforted, be comforted my people," says your God."
For this reason it is called the "Comfort Sabbath."
We can find comfort in the destruction of our Temple in the Mitzvah of reciting the Shema that was given to us in Parshat Ve'etchanan. The establishment of the kingdom of heaven is our task as a people. The lack of a Temple renders this job that much more difficult. We no longer have physical proof of our 'chosen-ness, and we have lost the embodiment of God's unity and the chief symbol of His Monarchy.
But we have not lost the Shema. We have not lost our ability to beseech God to reshape the world. We can still pray and our prayers are that much more necessary and meaningful. If we live the Shema we can accomplish all we need to accomplish without a Temple through the living testimony of our lives.
"Get yourself upon a high mountain, O herald unto Zion. Raise your voice in power, O herald unto Jerusalem. Raise it, fear not, say to the cities of Judah: Behold your God! Behold! My Lord God shall come with strength, and His arm will rule for Him. Behold, His recompense is with Him, and His wage is before Him." (Isaiah, 40:9-10)