The Torah portion for this week contains the Shema, which is often referred to as “the watchword of our faith.” The Shema is the first Jewish phrase we learn as children and, traditionally, is the final phrase we utter before we die. It is a profound statement of faith and a powerful articulation of a way of understanding our existence. The words of the Shema are simple, and they proclaim a theology of comfort and hope:
Shema Israel Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad
“Hear oh, Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One”
In reading the Shema, one might wonder why there are the two different words for God used in the Hebrew: Adonai and Eloheinu. One explanation suggests that these two names for God are there to remind us of two central traits we associate with the divine:
“Adonai” is understood to reflect God’s mercy and compassion.
“Eloheinu” is understood to reflect the God of Judgment.
According to this explanation, when we recite the Shema, we remind ourselves that God is always working in both realms. We need both justice and mercy in life, and by articulating that God provides an eternal source of both, Jews throughout history have found a sense of strength and comfort.
The idea that there is an eternal Judge of Truth has long provided the faithful with a sense of order in a world of chaos and confusion, and the idea that there is a transcendent source of comfort and mercy has served to ease our pains in the trials of life. Thus, the Shema, in six simple words, has remained the single phrase of comfort to Jews as they go to sleep at night, wake up in the morning and prepare for their final breath on earth.