To be strictly correct, it’s not the Shema but the second line, Baruch Shem, which is recited in an unusual way on this day – not softly, as is done during the rest of the year, but loudly, clearly, distinctly.
There are a number of famous explanations. One comes from the Midrash. It says that Jacob, on his deathbed, was ill at ease and apprehensive. What would happen once he had gone? Would his children remain true to their father’s belief in God, or would they abandon the Almighty and forsake their faith?
Taken aback at their father’s fears, Jacob’s children reassured him with one voice: Shema Yisra’el! – “Hear, Jacob our father!” HaShem E-lohenu, HaShem Echad! – “The Lord is our God, the Lord is One!”
And, relieved and grateful, Jacob responded, Baruch Shem Kevod Malchuto Leolam Va’ed! – “Blessed be the Name of His glorious kingdom for ever and ever!”
During the year, our paths often lead us away from the Synagogue and far from faith. But on Yom Kippur, like children taken aback that they have been doubted, we proclaim Shema Yisra’el! and Jacob our patriarch loudly responds, Baruch Shem! “Thank God for that!”
Or that’s the theory. Is the fact really as straightforward and simple?
Faith in God came more naturally to our pious ancestors. They lived in a pre-scientific age and His word was on their lips, His will in their hearts.
The great Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev once called a meeting of all the townspeople. Something important must have occurred, they all said to each other, for Levi Yitzchak to summon them.
Assembled in the town square, they heard him say, “Fellow Jews, I have great news to tell you. It cannot be postponed. The news is – there is a God in the world!”
And their hearts were moved, their thoughts inspired, to hear his message.
But today – if someone did a Levi Yitzchak it would fall absolutely flat.
The most that the majority of people could manage might be a polite, amused, “Really? Is that so?”
On Yom Kippur we join in the lusty singing of V’chol Maaminim, “And All Believe”. But do we all believe?
Many are merely going through the motions, either not certain there is a God or not convinced that there is still a God.
By way of illustration, you have probably heard of so-called “rabbis” who no longer believe in God and want to have a Judaism without Him, synagogues that will be man-centred, religion without the Divine. Some might say, Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark.
There have always been – especially in the last two hundred years – Jews who were atheists or agnostics, but they knew they were defying God and would not have dreamt of secular synagogues.
You can’t have an official Judaism without God and still call it Judaism. You can’t have Judaism without the Bible, and page one of the Bible says, “In the beginning, God…”
Upon first hearing of these so-called “rabbis” some years ago I was worried. Not because many people are going to follow their strange approach but because there are sincere Jewish men and women who have their problems with religion, their difficulties with God, and I would love to help them to join in the full-throated Shema Yisra’el of the children of Jacob.
So I thought I might consult God Himself.
His reply came in the hallowed words of our tradition.
I learnt that at times God is disappointed in His children. Perhaps their vision is clouded. As Rabbi Nachman of Breslov said, “Just as the hand, held before the eye, can hide the tallest mountain, so this small earthly life keeps our gaze from the vast radiance and the secrets that fill the world. He who can draw it away from his eyes, as one draws away the hand, will see the great light at the core of the world.”
Perhaps human beings are overtaken by unseemly arrogance. It has been said that Nietzsche was the greatest atheist of all. His was not a wavering uncertainty about the Almighty but a total revolution against Him. He said: “If there were to be a God, how could I possibly bear not to be this God myself?”
God must have a sense of humour. Otherwise He would have to weep over His children. But He loves His children. He would not want them to make a mistake. That’s why He gently shepherds them back under His covering wings.
Further: it rejoices Him to see them use their God-given reason. If their thinking leads them to doubt, He is far from angry. The more one agonises over doubts, the more honest and truthful a person one is.
God knows how hard it is, how angry His children are with Him, how easy it is to deny Him, especially when innocent people suffer, especially after a Holocaust.
One of our problems is that we try too hard to define God – and who can define Him? Said the medieval scholars, Lu yedativ heyitiv, “If I knew Him, I would be Him!”
When you try to define God you end up with a God who is too small – a cosmic grandfather, a spiritual slot machine – or a God who is too big – merely an idea, a force, a process, an hypothesis. It takes all the life out of God and He means nothing in your life.
God is – God! Ehyeh asher ehyeh – “I am what I am!” So you can’t see Him, you can’t hold Him?
The wind is a reality, and you can’t see that or hold it; love is a reality, and you can’t see or hold that either. You don’t need to know exactly what God is for Him to be real in your life.
I consulted God. Some of the things He told me were:
• “Take a step back and look at My world, its grandeur, its beauty, its order, its pattern. You find Me when you become amazed and awestruck at My creation!”
• “Look lovingly at your child, at that beautiful, tiny, bundle of potential. Observe its eyes beginning to open, its mind to think, its heart to feel, its talents to appear. In your child you see something of Me!”
• “Contemplate the human mind and heart, its immense capacity to push further the boundaries of know ledge, the scope of ideas; to feel deeply and burst into great works of art, music and beauty. This too is part of Me!”
• “Heed the still, small voice of conscience, impelling you to do the right thing and be a Mensch. Hear the commanding voice of Sinai with its ringing message of justice, truth and peace for all humankind. It is to Me that you are responding!”
• “See My hand in history especially the history of the Jewish people. Take note of My people restored to their land as I had promised. That, My children, is My doing!”
• “Be drawn by the pull of the infinite upon the finite, sense the spiritual forces in the universe, feel the sense of being in the presence of something greater and higher than you are. There you encounter Me!”