This week’s Torah portion Va’Etchanan contains what is perhaps the most important prayer in Judaism: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4).
Known as the Sh’ma, from the first word “hear” (שמע), it is a declaration that HaShem is Israel’s God alone, that he is their King, and that they will listen and obey his voice. It is said twice a day in the daily services of the synagogue and it is also the last prayer said upon dying. Many Jewish martyrs breathed their last breath while uttering this declaration of faith.
In Jewish thought, the Sh’ma also represents the hiddenness of God in the world. How so? The prayer is Israel-centric. It is not “Hear, O Nations,” but “Hear, O Israel.” It is a declaration that HaShem is the God of Israel. It’s not saying that he’s not the God of the whole earth, but that’s not the focus of the prayer. In that sense it represents the current state of exile, where God has revealed himself to Israel but not to every nation on the earth.
The good news is that this revelation of God is coming in the future. In the Messianic Era, Messiah Yeshua will return, and the knowledge of God will flood the earth. Habakkuk tells us: “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea” (2:14). In that day everyone will know the God of Israel. This knowledge began spreading when Yeshua extended the message of the gospel to the Gentile nations but it will not be fulfilled in its entirety until he returns.
So is there a universal Sh’ma? Rashi commenting on Deuteronomy 6:4 writes:
“The Lord is our God; the Lord is one:” The Lord, who is now our God and not the God of the other nations—He will be [declared] in the future “the one God,” as it is said: “For then I will convert the peoples to a pure language that all of them call in the name of the Lord” (Zephaniah 3:9), and it is [also] said: “On that day will the Lord be one and His name one” (Zechariah 14:9).
The full verse from Zechariah 14:9 reads: “And the LORD will be king over all the earth. On that day the LORD will be one and his name one.” This represents the fullness of the Sh’ma message. God is King and he is the one God not only of Israel but of all of the nations on the earth.
For now, the Jewish people and those who join them recite a truncated version of this promise. We recognize that in this era God revealed himself to the Jewish people and it is through them that the knowledge of God is spreading over the whole earth. This will then be culminated in the Messianic Era when HaShem will be the One God of the Earth, he will King over all, and all will obey his voice.
It is therefore interesting that Zechariah 14:9 is recited three times a day in the synagogue toward the end of each service at the end of a prayer called the Aleinu (“It is our duty,” עלינו). The second half of the Aleinu prayer focuses on the kingdom when all nations will bow before HaShem and worship him alone:
Therefore, we will hope in You, O LORD our God, to see quickly the majesty of Your strength, to cause idolatry to pass from the earth, and the idols will be utterly cut down, to repair the world in the kingdom of Shaddai. And all humankind will call on Your name, to cause all the wicked ones of the earth to turn to You. All of the world’s inhabitants will recognize and know that to You, every knee will bow and every tongue will swear allegiance (Isaiah 45:23). Before You, O LORD, our God, they will bend their knees and fall, and they will give glory to Your precious name. They will all receive the yoke of Your kingdom, and You will reign over them, quickly, forever and ever. For the Kingdom is Yours, and forever and ever You will reign gloriously, as it is written in Your Torah: “The LORD will reign forever and ever!” (Exodus 15:18). And it is said: “And the LORD will be King over the whole earth; in that day, the LORD will be One, and His name will be One” (Zechariah 14:9).
In my mind then, the daily prayer services in the morning (Shacharit) and the evening (Ma’ariv) become a picture of the story of redemption. The Sh’ma, recited early in the service, represents God’s original revelation of himself at Mount Sinai to the Jewish people, while the Aleinu, recited at the end of the service, represents the final revelation of HaShem to the whole in the kingdom of heaven. May it be soon and in our days!