Parashat Vayechi 5781
by Meir Sendor
Every day in prayer, morning and evening, we declare the Oneness of God in the Shema. Yet as familiar as this mitzvah may be, the awareness it challenges us to attain is extraordinary. As Rabbenu Bahya Ibn Pakudah explains at length in Hovot haLevavot, the oneness of God is not like the number one of mathematics. It’s absolute one, absolute singularity, which the human mind cannot grasp, cannot form into a concept. Sefer Yetzirah says of God’s oneness: “before one, what can you count?” If so, how can we truly fulfill this mitzvah? The Zohar offers us a way in.
The Zohar is interpreting a passage in the Gemara Pesachim that wrestles with why, in the Shema of the Siddur, a statement is inserted that does not appear in the Shema of the Torah. The Shema of the Torah reads: “Hear, Israel, HaShem our God, HaShem is One. And you shall love HaShem your God with all your heart…” In the liturgy, however, between these two verses we have “Blessed be the Name of the Glory of His Kingdom forever and ever.” Where did this come from, and why here?
Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish in the Gemara explains with a dramatization of an incident from this week’s parashah:
תלמוד בבלי מסכת פסחים דף נו עמוד א
רבי יהודה אומר: מפסיקין היו, אלא שלא היו אומרים ברוך שם כבוד מלכותו לעולם ועד. ואנן מאי טעמא אמרינן ליה? כדדריש רבי שמעון בן לקיש, דאמר רבי שמעון בן לקיש: ויקרא יעקב אל בניו ויאמר האספו ואגידה לכם. ביקש יעקב לגלות לבניו קץ הימין, ונסתלקה ממנו שכינה. אמר: שמא חס ושלום יש במטתי פסול, כאברהם שיצא ממנו ישמעאל, ואבי יצחק שיצא ממנו עשו. אמרו לו בניו: שמע ישראל ה’ אלהינו ה’ אחד. אמרו: כשם שאין בלבך אלא אחד – כך אין בלבנו אלא אחד. באותה שעה פתח יעקב אבינו ואמר: ברוך שם כבוד מלכותו לעולם ועד. אמרי רבנן: היכי נעביד? נאמרוהו – לא אמרו משה רבינו, לא נאמרוהו – אמרו יעקב. התקינו שיהו אומרים אותו בחשאי. אמר רבי יצחק, אמרי דבי רבי אמי: משל לבת מלך שהריחה ציקי קדירה, אם תאמר – יש לה גנאי, לא תאמר – יש לה צער. התחילו עבדיה להביא בחשאי. אמר רבי אבהו: התקינו שיהו אומרים אותו בקול רם מפני תרעומת המינין. ובנהרדעא דליכא מינין – עד השתא אמרי לה בחשאי.
Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish said: “And Yaakov called to his children and said ‘gather together and I will tell you what will happen to you in the end of days (Gen. 49:1).’” Yaakov sought to reveal to his children the end of days, but the divine Presence departed from him. He said “perhaps, Heaven forbid, there is a blemish in my bed [ an unworthy one among my offspring], like Avraham, from whom came Yishmael, and my father Yitzchak, from whom came Esav? His children said to him “Hear, Israel, HaShem our God, HaShem is One (Dt. 6:4).” They said “just as in your heart there is only One, so in our hearts there is only One.” At that moment Yaakov our father exclaimed “Blessed be the Name of the Glory of His Kingdom forever and ever.” Our Rabbis said: What should we do? If we say it – but Moshe didn’t say it. If we don’t say it – Yaakov did say it. They decreed that we should say it in a whisper.
The Shema as we have it in the Torah is a statement from Moshe Rabbenu of a mitzvah directed to the collective nation of Israel: “Hear, Israel…” In Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish’s dramatization, the original statement was directed personally to the original Israel, our father Yaakov, by his children: “Hear, Israel…” They were reassuring their worried father that they know and affirm with complete assurance that HaShem is One. Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish explains the interpolated statement we have in the Siddur as Yaakov’s response: a relieved praise of thanks to God that all his children understand this: “Blessed be the Name of the Glory of His Kingdom forever and ever.” The Rabbis are concerned about inserting a statement in the Siddur that doesn’t appear in the Torah’s version of the Shema, yet is authorized by Yaakov Avinu himself, and decide on a compromise: to say it quietly.
Thus far, the Gemara explains the text and custom of the Shema in the Siddur. What’s still not clear is why Yaakov Avinu praised God with precisely that declaration in those words. We could suggest that this phrase was also used in the Holy Temple when the Explicit Name of God was pronounced, indicating that in saying the Shema properly, even using divine Names other than the Tetragrammaton, the declaration is so profound that it is as if we have used the Explicit Name of God. But this would still not explain the wording of this statement of praise: the reference to Name, Glory, Kingdom.
This is where the Zohar comes in, elaborating on the aggadah of the Gemara:
אינון אמרו כמה דלית בלבך אלא אחד דאנת ברזא דעלמא עלאה ואיהו אחד, אוף אנן דאנן ברזא דעלמא תתאה איהו אחד, ועל דא אדכרו תרי לבבות רזא דעלמא עלאה דאיהו לבא דיעקב ורזא דעלמא תתאה דאיהו לבא דבנוי כדין אעיל לה בלחישו, וכמה דאינון אתייחדו רזא דעלמא עלאה באחד ורזא דעלמא תתאה באחד, אוף הכי אנן צריכין ליחדא עלמא עלאה באחד וליחדא עלמא תתאה ברזא דאחד,
[The children] said “just as in your heart there is only One, for you are in the mystery of the Upper World and He is One, so, too, for us, who are in the mystery of the lower world, He is One.” Regarding this there is reference to two hearts, the mystery of the Upper World, which is the heart of Yaakov, and the mystery of the lower world, which is the heart of his children. And so it is expressed in a whisper. And just as they unified the mystery of the Upper World in One and the mystery of the lower world in One, so, too, we need to unify the Upper World in One and unify the lower world in the mystery of One.
The Zohar gives a striking interpretation of the statement of Yaakov’s children. They are not merely affirming that they are monotheists exactly as their father is a monotheist. Rather, they are acknowledging that their father Yaakov has a deeper awareness of the Oneness of God, absolute Oneness beyond normal human grasp, the Oneness apprehended in the Upper World, the World of the Sefirot, in which Yaakov himself is represented in the Sefirah Tiferet, and they admit they are not at that level. But they affirm that they are able to apprehend the Oneness of God as its impact is revealed throughout Creation, the Oneness of the lower world, God’s Kingdom, whose Glory reveals His Name.
The Lower Unification, as this awareness is called in other passages in the Zohar and in kabbalistic and hasidic literature, refers to this appreciation that all of Creation expresses divine unity. That we have general terms for reality as a whole, in Hebrew עולם, in English world, universe, and so, too, in all human languages, demonstrates awareness that there is a unity and coherence to this reality we find ourselves in. Created beings are not just isolated individuals floating separately in an endless void. We see the Glory of coherence reflected and refracted everywhere around us. Everything hangs together, fits together, interconnects. According to contemporary physics, all of reality itself is a unified continuum, the space-time continuum. Astrophysicists detect that this continuum is expanding, but not in the sense that the universe is stretching out in space, but rather, the space continuum is itself expanding, yet remaining continuous. Even the distances between things in this universe are essential to the cohesiveness of the continuum. On the physical level, electromagnetism, the strong and weak nuclear forces, and gravity bind matter together. On the spiritual level, love binds hearts and minds together. God’s Oneness is expressed everywhere, through and through.
According to the Zohar this Lower Unification is a profound mystery, and as a mystery, is expressed in a whisper in prayer. In this mystery two modes of consciousness are unified: awareness of God’s absolute Oneness and awareness of the way God’s Oneness embraces all of His Creation. So the verse that follows the Shema enjoins us to love God with all our heart, using the doubled form of the word for heart, לבבך, signifying two modes of heart-consciousness as one. God’s actual Oneness is beyond grasp, but the impact of God’s Oneness in every aspect of our reality gives us a way to approach His absolute singularity. The sign that we appreciate this is that we really experience love of God with all our heart, soul and might.
The impact of God’s unity in our world is also expressed ethically, in our responsibility for each other, to support each other, protect each other, help each other in need. We are in this unified reality together. When Yaakov called his children, he asked them to “gather together,” and when they affirmed their worthiness they did it all together. It’s a message we all need to Hear, O Israel.
The current pandemic has tested our sense of unity and mutual responsibility as a nation, our care for the lives, health and welfare of others, and thus far I’d say we have much room for improvement. Callous self-interest and dismissiveness of relatively simple hygiene guidelines intended to protect others as well as ourselves have been disturbingly widespread in many sectors of our nation, and the surge in infections reveals these tears in the social fabric. That a third lockdown was necessary in Israel is an embarrassment. In the Minchah service for Shabbat we pray “You are One, Your Name is One, and who is like Your people Israel, one nation in the earth.” We say it, but we need to realize it and make it real.
Israel mourns the passing of the Rav Yehuda Herzl Henkin, זכר צדיק לברכה, who passed away last week. Rav Henkin was one of the great leaders of our generation, the highest exemplar of what a true rabbinic leader should be. His Torah is Torat Emet – the Torah of Truth, his Torah is Torat Hesed – the Torah of Love and Kindness. He lived Torah as profound responsibility to HaShem and responsibility for all human beings. His writings express the supreme dignity of Torah and of humanity, and love of Am Yisrael, and his life glorified the Name of the Kingdom of God. May we honor his memory by learning his deeply thoughtful and compassionate Torah, to gather together and reassure our father Yaakov that “just as in your heart there is only One, so in our hearts there is only One.”