Twice a day, in the morning and the evening, we call upon all Israel to recognize the Divine Oneness and Unity:
“Hear O Israel, Hashem is our God, Hashem is One!” (Deuteronomy 6:4)
“Hear O Israel.” Throughout the centuries of our exile, the chanting of the Shema reminded us of the spiritual vision and path which unites us as a people. The chanting of the Shema also strengthened our people’s resolve to resist the various attempts to force us to abandon our spiritual vision and path.
For example, during the Christian Crusades, Christian mobs led by priests offered Jews the following choice: “The cross or death! You will be spared if you accept Jesus as your Lord, Savior, and Messiah!” The Jews knew, however, that they are to only serve Hashem, the One Creator of all life, and they refused to deify a human being. In addition, the Prophets of Israel stated that when the Messiah comes, there will be universal spiritual enlightenment and peace, as well as the ingathering of the exiles of Israel; thus, they knew that Jesus was not the promised Messiah, for he did not fulfill any of these prophecies. The very fact that Christians were murdering Jews because they refused to deify Jesus was another reminder that the true Messiah had not yet arrived. Many Jewish men, women, and children therefore defiantly proclaimed the words of the Shema, and their last words, before they were murdered, were, “Hashem is One!”
The Shema is one of the first verses that a Jewish child is taught as soon as he or she learns how to speak. In addition, Jewish mothers would teach their young children to chant the Shema before going to sleep. In this spirit, I would like to share with you the following story about the Shema:
After the Holocaust, there were some leading rabbis who visited Christian orphanages in order to search for Jewish children. During the Holocaust, some Jewish parents in Europe had placed their children in Christian orphanages in order to save their lives. It was the hope of these parents that they would later be reunited with their children, and if they – the parents – would not survive, they hoped that surviving relatives or friends would find the children.
After the war, most of the priests and nuns who ran these orphanages were not willing to release the Jewish children and allow them to return to their people. In the post-war period, the Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of the Jewish community in the Land of Israel, Rabbi Isaac Herzog, traveled to Rome and asked Pope Pius XII for his assistance in locating Jewish orphans who were cared for by Catholic families and orphanages, but the Pope refused to help.
The priests and nuns who ran the orphanages would usually deny that they had any Jewish children. During one visit, a leading rabbi asked the priest in charge of the orphanage to allow him to return in the evening when the children were going to sleep. The priest reluctantly agreed to the Rabbi’s request. When the rabbi returned, he entered the children’s room, and as he walked through the aisles of beds, he chanted the Hebrew words of the Shema. One by one, children burst into tears and cried out, “Mama!” Many repeated the words of the Shema.
The priests had taught the children about Christianity, but these clergymen were unable to erase these children’s memories of their Jewish mothers putting them to bed every night with the Shema on their lips. The head priest had no choice but to admit that he was “mistaken”; thus, these lost children of Israel were able to return “home” – to their people and to their Torah.
I will conclude this letter with the following verse from a daily weekday prayer:
O Guardian of Israel, protect the remnant of Israel, and let not Israel perish, who say, “Shema Yisrael.”
May we be blessed with a Good and Comforting Shabbos.
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
The following is a link to a moving song and video about the Shema and the lost children. It was forwarded to me by Hazon participant, Rena Cohen: