שמע ישראל ה’ אלוקינו ה’ אחד
The first verse of the Shema Israel contains a very important message: the principles of our faith.
These principles are:
1. The existence of God.
2. The authority of God.
3. The unicity of God.
In the next few days we will analyze these three ideas, one by one.
HOW DO YOU SAY “IS” IN HEBREW?
We will start with a very significant word that, ironically, it is not written explicitly in our text.
Literally our verse says: “Listen Israel, HaShem our God, HaShem one.” But the correct translation is: “Listen Israel, HaShem is our God HaShem is one.” In Hebrew, and despite what you have been taught in school, there is no present tense. To indicate the present tense we use the noun. When I say for example: ANI QORE, which is generally translated as “I read”, I am actually saying “At this present moment, I am a reader”. That is why when you want to say the verb “to be” in the present: “he is” or “I am”, you say nothing. If you want to say “this chair is white” you say “hakise haze laban” = “This chair … white”. And when you want “HaShem is our God” you say: “HaShem our God”.
Now, even though the word “is” is not written in Hebrew, the idea of “is” definitely is there, in the implicit meaning of this phrase. Not only that: the unwritten “is” is extremely important. Since the word “is” means “exists.” And when we say: “HaShem is our God” we are affirming that HaShem exists.
This is the number one principle of the Jewish faith.
HOW DO WE KNOW THAT GOD EXISTS?
This topic is obviously very broad. So I’m not going to explain it, I’m just going to describe it superficially.
Our faith in God is based on two elements.
1. Faith in our parents.
The Jewish people collectively experienced the revelation of God at Mount Sinai, when the Tora was given to us. In an absolutely technical sense, our knowledge of God, the knowledge of His existence, is based on this historical event. At this very basic level, our faith in God is intimately related to, and is dependent on, the faith we have in our ancestors. That is to say: I believed in my parents, who believed in their parents, who believed in their parents, etc. who experienced personally the direct revelation of HaShem on Mount Sinai. At that moment, when HaShem gave us the 10 Commandments, we Jews became the sole “witnesses of God’s existence”.
2. Our own search for God.
Knowledge of God begins with this historical foundation, but evidently does not end there. The search for God, perceiving His existence, consists of a long process. Dedicating ourselves to look for Him, discovering His Presence, is the existential mission of the Jewish individual. We learn from Abraham’s story that we should experience the existence of God as the Creator, by observing His Creation with attention. That is why among the Sephardic Jews we always refer to God as Bore Olam, the Creator of the universe. Today, thanks to scientific and technological advances, we can appreciate much better than in the past the Divine “fingerprints” in Creation. We only need to observe and study the numberless evidences of HaShem’s intelligent design in Creation. The incredibly complex composition of a cell; the sophisticated information stored in the DNA, which we have just begun to understand; the miracle of procreation, etc. On this last point I want to share with the reader a brief thought written by Lewis Thomas, a prestigious doctor who served for many years as president of the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan. Dr. Thomas could not contain either his enthusiasm or his amazement for the complex biological system we know as “sexual reproduction”. In his book The Medusa and the Snail, he wrote about the “miracle” of how one sperm cell forms with one egg cell to produce the cell we know as a zygote, which, nine months later, will become a newborn human being. He concluded:
‘The mere existence of that cell should be one of the greatest astonishments of the earth. People ought to be walking around all day, all through their waking hours, calling to each other in endless wonderment, talking of nothing except that cell….