The Talmud (Makot 23b) teaches us that Hashem gave the Jewish people 613 מצות – commandments.
דרש רבי שמלאי: שש מאות ושלש עשרה מצות נאמרו לו למשה …אמר רב המנונא מאי קרא תורה צוה לנו משה מורשה תורה בגימטריא שית מאה וחד סרי הוי אנכי ולא יהיה לך מפי הגבורה שמענום
Rabbi Simlai taught: 613 commandments were told to Moshe on Sinai. Rav Hamnuna said, “Which verse in scripture teaches us this lesson? [Deuteronomy 33:4] תורה צוה לנו משה מורשה – Moshe commanded us to keep תורה – Torah. The numeric value of the letters that spell תורה is 611 ( ת=400 ו=6 ר=200 ה=5), and the Jewish people heard the first two commandments ’I am the Lord your G-d who took you out of Egypt’, and ‘Do not have any other gods,’ directly from Hashem,” bringing the total to 613.
Maimonides’s book “ספר המצות – Sefer HaMitzvot- The Book of Commandments” lists and explains each of the Torah’s 613 mitzvot. Mitzvot numbers one and two correspond to the first two commandments that we heard directly from Hashem, and find themselves in a familiar verse in this week’s Torah portion, Vaetchanan (Deuteronomy 6:4).
(ד) שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יְדֹוָד אֱלֹקֵינוּ יְדֹוָד אֶחָד
Hear, O Israel: Hashem is our G-d, Hashem is the One and Only
Maimonides writes (Sefer Hamitzvot):
מצוה א – היא הצווי אשר צונו בהאמנת האלהות והוא שנאמין שיש שם עלה וסבה הוא פועל לכל הנמצאים, והוא אמרו – אנכי ה’ אלהיך
Mitzvah #1: This is the commandment to believe in Hashem, that is, to believe that there is a first cause that made all that exists. The source for this in Scripture is the first of the ten commandments, “I am the Lord your G-d.”
מצוה ב – היא הצווי שצונו באמונת היחוד והוא שנאמין שפועל המציאות וסבתו הראשונה אחד והוא אמרו יתעלה שמע ישראל ה’ אלקינו ה’ אחד
Maimonides – Mitzvah #2: This is the commandment to believe in Hashem’s Oneness; this means that we should believe that the first cause and source of all that exists, is One and Only. The source for this in Scripture is: “Hear, O Israel, Hashem is our G-d, Hashem is the One and Only.”
When we say in the Shema, “Hashem is our G-d,” we are echoing the first commandment. which commands us to believe in Hashem as the source of all that exists and as the Master over the world. When we say, “Hashem is the One and Only,” we are saying there are no other gods- the second commandment.
Because the Shema contains the first two commandments in it, it is also referred to as, “קבלת עול מלכות שמים” the formal acceptance upon oneself the yoke of heaven. In this one verse, we declare that we are prepared to subjugate our personal wills and desires to Hashem’s will. If He is our G-d, we are His subjects, who must fulfill all of His commandments.
מצוה י – היא שצונו לקרוא קריאת שמע בכל יום ערבית ושחרית
Maimonides – Mitzvah #10: This is the commandment to read the Shema twice every day, evening and morning.
This is why the Sages have incorporated the Shema into the morning service, שחרית – Shacharit, and into the evening service, ערבית – Maariv (or Arvit). In the course of our daily prayers, we fulfill mitzvah #10, to read the Shema evening and morning.
It is interesting to note the Torah’s words used to convey to us that we should read the Shema evening and morning. We learn this commandment from the verse (Deuteronomy 6:7):
(ז) וְדִבַּרְתָּ בָּם … וּבְשָׁכְבְּךָ וּבְקוּמֶךָ
7) And you shall speak them (say the Shema) when you retire and when you arise.
One of course retires to sleep in the evening and arises in the morning, so we know what it means, but why such a peculiar way of saying it? Why not say, evening and morning?
The Sefer Hachinuch (Mitzvah 420) provides us with a beautiful explanatory insight.
משרשי המצוה, שרצה השם לזכות עמו שיקבלו עליהם מלכותו ויחודו בכל יום ולילה כל הימים שהם חיים, כי בהיות האדם בעל חומר נפתה אחר הבלי העולם ונמשך לתאוותיו צריך על כל פנים זכרון תמידי במלכות שמים לשמרו מן החטא, על כן היה מחסדו לזכותנו, וצונו לזכרו שני העתים האלה בקבע ובכוונה גמורה, אחת ביום להועיל לכל מעשינו שביום, כי בהיות האדם זוכר בבקר אחדות השם ומלכותו וכי השגחתו ויכלתו על הכל, ויתן אל לבו כי עיניו פקוחות על כל דרכיו וכל צעדיו יספור לא יתעלם ממנו דבר מכל דבריו, ולא יוכל ממנו להחביא אחת מכל מחשבותיו, הלא יהיה לו למשמר מחשבתו זאת והודאת פיו בדבר הזה כל היום ההוא, ויהיה לו הודאת הלילה בזה גם כן למשמר כל הלילה
Hashem wanted to give merit to His nation by having them accept His Kingdom and His Oneness, every day and night of their lives. Since a person is materialistic, he is easily persuaded to follow the whiles of the world, and he is drawn to its pleasures. Therefore, he needs a constant reminder of Hashem’s Kingdom to guard him from sinning. Hence, out of His kindness, Hashem commanded us to remember Him at these crucial times, consistently, and with complete concentration. [If a person doesn’t focus and understand the words of the Shema taking them to heart as he says them, since he has not accepted the yoke of Heaven upon himself, he has not fulfilled the mitzvah.] Once in the daytime, to help with all the events that will occur during the day, because when a person remembers Hashem’s Oneness and Kingdom in the morning, he realizes that Hashem supervises and controls everything. He should also take to heart that Hashem’s eyes are following all of his ways, and that Hashem is counting his every step, and that none of his matters can escape Hashem’s scrutiny; he cannot hide even one of his thoughts from Him! These thoughts and his proclamation of them, will protect him the whole day. The same goes for the night.
Therefore, the verse says, “when you arise” to teach us that at the beginning of our day, we must fortify ourselves with the message of the Shema, and “when we retire” at the end of our day, we once again ponder the lesson of the Shema, how our whole day was orchestrated and supervised by Hashem.
From the beautiful ideas expressed in the Sefer HaChinuch, it is easy to see how, if we properly understood the Shema’s message the way that the author did, the struggles and challenges of the day would be so much easier to negotiate. There is nothing but Hashem. He is behind everything that is happening. Hashem follows my every step! Hashem listens to my every thought! Hashem understands what I am going through. This is all meant to be. Hashem is behind it all, and He has a plan and a reason for everything that He does.
There is yet a deeper meaning to this.
One of the great challenges in life to those who believe in Hashem is the issue of “Why bad things happen to good people?” and the reverse, “Why bad people seem to have it so good.” Were we not to have to say that “Hashem is One and Only,” we could easily resolve the matter by saying that there are opposing forces of good and bad that vie for control; sometimes the good wins and sometimes the bad wins. Since they are different forces coming from different places, there is no problem understanding the conflict. This is how religions with multiple gods deal with the issue of good and bad. There is a good god and a bad god. Serve the good god, make sure he likes you, and you will be rewarded with goodness for your efforts. At the same time, be sure not to anger the bad god, or he may get you!
Hashem, on the other hand, is One, and He is the source of all of the world’s forces! There is only Hashem, and Hashem is only good. So where does the evil come from? Can’t He control the bad and prevent it from attacking the good people? How could bad things happen to good people in Hashem’s world?
The Shema addresses this question.
Hashem has ten different holy names, each name portraying Hashem in a specific mode of operation. For example, the nameאלקים (Elokim) always denotes Hashem acting with strict judgment without mercy. The name ידוד – Hashem (for reasons of its sanctity, the name is written with ד instead of ה), portrays Hashem in the mode of kindness and mercy. We use both of these names in the Shema. Isn’t that contradictory?
The answer is that this is exactly the point of invoking the Hashem’s Oneness in the Shema. We are saying that although sometimes we experience the strict judgment of Elokim, which hurts and seems bad, “Hashem is One.” Elokim and Hashem are the same entity – and He is only good! What we perceive to be bad is really a blessing in disguise. Because Hashem is One, no evil can possibly come forth from Him. Everything that He does is only good. This is a fact and a corollary of Hashem’s Oneness.
This provides great comfort to a person because difficulties in life, when looked at from this perspective, suddenly become easier to bear. A person realizes that there is a reason for the suffering. It may not take away his pain, but at least he knows that it has been carefully thought about, that there is a reason for it, and that it is only there to help him. Perhaps, if he figures out and learns the lesson Hashem wants to teach him, he can avoid the entire thing. After all, the suffering has accomplished its goal.
The Talmud says (Berachot 60b):
אמר רב הונא אמר רב משום רבי מאיר, וכן תנא משמיה דרבי עקיבא, לעולם יהא אדם רגיל לומר כל דעביד רחמנא לטב עביד
Rav Huna said in the name of Rav, who quoted Rabbi Meir, and Rabbi Akiva said the same, “A person should be in the habit of saying, ‘Everything that the Merciful One does, He does for the best!’”
With this idea, we can add another layer of depth to the words of the Sefer HaChinuch about saying the Shema in the morning and the evening.
King David said in Psalms (92:3):
(ג) לְהַגִּיד בַּבֹּקֶר חַסְדֶּךָ וֶאֱמוּנָתְךָ בַּלֵּילוֹת
3) To relate your kindness in the morning and your faith in the nights.
The morning represents the good times. With the sun’s light shining brightly, its rays warming us, everything is clear; we understand where we stand, and we are happy with our lot. In the good times, we must recognize that allthe goodness comes from Hashem and that we must praise and thank Him for it.
Nighttime represents the times when the plan is obscured and hidden from us, like something in a dark room that we cannot see. We don’t understand what is happening. Everything seems to be going wrong. The situation is very difficult. Where is Hashem? Why is this happening to me? In the dark times, we must blindly place our trust in Hashem and keep in mind that He only has our best interest in mind. We cannot see it; it is obscured by the darkness, but it is a blessing in disguise, and it is good for us.
This is why we must say the Shema morning and night. In the morning when we wake up and are alive for another day, we must acknowledge Hashem for the great gift of another day of life. When saying the Shema, we acknowledge that another day of life is a gift from Hashem, and that we were given it to use to serve Him. We accept Him as our King and wish to fulfill His commandments. During the good times when everything is going swimmingly well, when saying the Shema we recognize Hashem as the source of our blessing, and accept upon ourselves to reciprocate by fulfilling His wishes.
We must also say the Shema at night, when things are bleak and dark. When we don’t understand what is going on with us, and why things are happening as they are. Especially in those times, we must always remember, “Hashem is One!” It is all from the One good and loving Hashem who only does good, and never bad. This is also good; I don’t understand how, but I know it is true because I have made it my reality. How? By saying the Shema twice a day for so many years and imbuing and reinforcing within myself over and over that Hashem is One, there is nothing but Hashem, and Hashem is only good. I have complete trust in Him.
Who are we talking to when we say, “Hear, O Israel?” What is this about?
There is a very important lesson here. When we wake up in the morning and recite the Shema to accept the yoke of Hashem upon ourselves, we must each realize that the Torah was not given to me alone. It was given to the entire Jewish nation, and it is my obligation to try to connect every other Jew to Hashem! I must be one who calls out to others, “Listen, I want to tell you something. Hashem is real! Hashem is our G-d!!! We need to get with the program and start paying Him some attention!” Each of us can do this in our own way, and help others to see the light.
The Code of Jewish Law states (Laws of Shema 61:6):
(ו) צריך להאריך בחי”ת של אחד, כדי שימליך הקב”ה בשמים ובארץ, שלזה רומז החטוטרות שבאמצע הגג החי”ת. ויאריך בדלי”ת של אחד שיעור שיחשוב שהקב”ה יחיד בעולמו ומושל בד’ רוחות העולם
6) When reciting the verse Shema, one must elongate the sound of the ח in the last word אחד long enough to think that Hashem is the King of the heavens and the earth … and he should elongate the sound of the ד of אחד long enough to think that Hashem is the Master of the world, and rules over all four corners of the earth.
After thinking that Hashem is the Master of the heavens and the earth and all four corners of the earth, a person has coronated Hashem as King of the entire universe. The Chofetz Chaim would regularly quote Rabbi Yisroel Salanter who said, “We are careful to coronate Hashem over the entire universe, but sometimes we forget to coronate Him over ourselves.” Doing so misses the mark because the main goal of the Shema is to accept upon ourselves the yoke of heaven.
To our “American” ears, the idea of accepting the yoke of another upon ourselves smacks of the idea of slavery. Our society doesn’t look favorably upon one who has completely subjugated another to his will, so how can we be expected to become “slaves” to Hashem?
The answer is that there is no greater honor or privilege than to be a servant to Hashem. Do we in fact do anything for Him? Is there anything that we can do for Him? He is perfect and He has everything, so there is nothing that we can actually do for Him. What kind of servant is that? The reality is that when we serve Hashem, we are really serving ourselves. The whole idea of us doing Hashem’s mitzvot is just to give Hashem an excuse to give us reward. Moreover, when a person serves himself, no matter how great he is, what is he in comparison to Hashem? Looking down at the world from the space shuttle, will anybody see him? But when a person is Hashem’s servant, he is connected to the infinite love of Hashem, and, as a servant, is worthy of reward.
One can have no greater a kingdom than the kingdom of Hashem. When a person seeks to create a kingdom for himself, no matter how much wealth he has accumulated, what is it in comparison to the Kingdom of Hashem, which controls the entire universe? More importantly, he cannot take it with him when he leaves this world. He must leave everything behind for others to take. When he is part of Hashem’s kingdom throughout his life, he continues in his position of glory in the world to come. Having been one of Hashem’s loyal servants in this world, Hashem will take very good care of him in the next world.
מצוה ג – היא שצונו לאהבו יתעלה
Maimonides – Mitzvah #3: This is the commandment to love Hashem.
This comes from the very next verse that we say after saying the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:5),
(ה) וְאָהַבְתָּ אֵת יְדֹוָד אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּכָל לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל נַפְשְׁךָ וּבְכָל מְאֹדֶךָ
5) And you shall love Hashem your G-d with all your heart, and all your soul and with all that you possess.
After fulfilling Mitzva #1 to know and believe in Hashem, and #2 that there is no other god than Hashem, comes mitzvah #3 to love Hashem. If we have fulfilled numbers 1 and 2 properly, and deeply appreciate Hashem, #3, to love Hashem, should be the natural outcome. My heart should fill with love for Hashem for having given me the privilege of serving Him. Moreover, my heart should fill with joy that I even know Hashem is real that I may serve Him! How many billions of people walk the earth without a clue, yet I have been selected by Hashem to be His servant! Baruch Hashem!!!! It’s time to make a party and celebrate!