It’s the very first prayer I learned, and it’s the very last prayer I’m to utter on my deathbed. Except, it’s technically not a prayer at all. It’s a declaration.
Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One!
The Shema. Shema means “hear” in Hebrew. The full Shema is made up of Deuteronomy 6:4–9; 11:13–21, and Numbers 15:37–41, but the first line is considered the most foundational prayer of Judaism, and is recited on its own at key points in liturgy as the affirmation that directs all the other scriptures. These words proclaimed by Moses more than three thousand years ago are the melodic line of the Jewish people, affirming God’s singularity and our unity. It is our oldest prayer, and whether we sing it with one voice together in the synagogue or whisper it in tears alone in the dark, our echo of Moses’s ancient call affirms our faith and trust in God’s sovereignty.
And so we teach the words diligently to our children. We sing them when we lie down and when we rise up. And we hang them on the doorposts of our homes, written on scrolls nestled inside pretty mezuzahs that our bubbies brought home from Israel. We pray that the words are inscribed not only on that tiny parchment, but also impressed on our hearts and written with the ink of our lives as we seek to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and strength.
Throughout every single day that the Lord has made—whether it’s been delicious or devastating—repeating the Shema strips everything back down to the bedrock that God is sovereign. And that he is mine.
Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One!
Yes, He is mine. But he isn’t just mine. He is ours.
He Is Ours
By design and by circumstance, Judaism has never been a single-player game. The Shema binds us together with a declaration that this faith in the one true God is to be lived out in community. After all, Moses didn’t say “Adonai your God,” or “Adonai my God.” No. The Lord is our God. As much as the Israelites drove Moses to anger and despair and everything in between, they were in it together. And so are we.
And so we cover our eyes and repeat after Moses, blocking out every distraction as we utter this oldest prayer of our people. Over and over throughout the days. Sinking it deeper and deeper into the psyche with every repetition across time and place. Lifting up this prayer that really asks nothing of God, but everything of us. Whom do I trust? Whom do I worship? And with whom do I live out this faith, through thick and through thin? Through plagues and politics and all that seeks to separate?
I pray . . . that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.
Even the Messiah—foretold by Moses himself—the one who came to destroy the dividing walls between all of us prayed to the Father that we would be united as God is. As they are. Their oneness is mysterious. And confounding. Especially to a Jewish girl who’d been praying the Shema her whole life. Standing on God’s incomparable oneness as biblical proof against Christianity. Except.
Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad.
Echad. It’s a special kind of “one.” Echad isn’t the standard Hebrew word for “the only one.” Instead, this little word that has sealed my prayer, over and over and over again, is often used to describe compound unity, a compound one. As in “the two shall become one flesh” in Genesis 2:24. Joined, yet distinct. One, yet different. Instead of a dividing wall, I found myself staring at a bridge. A bridge uniting all I’d known to be true, and all I was discovering to be true.
Every day of my life, ever since I’d learned my very first prayer, every time I declared God’s echad oneness, the Trinity had been on my lips. Now, every time I utter the Shema, I realize that I’m preaching the beauty of the gospel to myself. Declaring God’s unfathomable oneness.
When I rise up and lie down and sit at home and walk along the way, this ancient declaration humbles and convicts me, calms and delights me. With each utterance, the words define me more deeply, like a river carving through rock day after day, year after year. And as I affirm him more, I find myself more affirmed. I know who I am. Whose I am. With whom I am. Which frees me to live the final call of this verse. Because, written by hand in every Torah scroll, we discover that the last letter of the Shema’s first and last words are drawn larger than all the rest. Rising from the parchment, these bookends join together to form the Hebrew word ayd. Witness.
Drawn into the Mystery
As we live life clinging to the Sovereign One and to one another, we live as witnesses to people living outside the “our.” Loving the Lord our God with all our hearts and souls and strength—and our neighbors as ourselves—so profoundly, that others are drawn into the mystery alongside us, alongside me.
Hear, O humanity, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.
The Shema. That call to worship that we preach to ourselves and that we preach to one another with one voice. That ancient prayer is meant to be the very first prayer we utter and the very last words on our lips. Calling people to worship as we slip into eternity, finding ourselves enveloped by a resounding response that fills the heavens.
Then I heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting: “Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory!” Revelation 19:6–7
Cover image by Jon Tyson.