May 23, 2024
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Shema Yisrael Prepares Us for Battle

During World War II, many Jewish children were entrusted by their parents to Christian orphanages and monasteries with the hope of reuniting with their children after the war. At the war’s conclusion, the Klausenberger Rebbe went to the orphanages and monasteries to locate those Jewish children. At one orphanage, the nun told the rebbe that she would only release children who he could prove were Jewish. Would the children remember their heritage after all this time? As the children were lying in bed to go to sleep, the rebbe walked into the room and sang out Shema Yisrael! Some children started to sing along to complete the Shema, while others burst into tears. The rebbe pointed to each child who said Shema or who was crying, and said, “These are all Jewish children. They remember their parents saying Shema with them before they went to sleep. The words Shema Yisrael are seared into their souls.”

In Parshas Shoftim, there are many mitzvos pertaining to Klal Yisrael waging war. A Kohen was designated to encourage the soldiers and to reassure them of their impending victory. The Kohen began by saying the following line: “Shema Yisrael, atem kreivim hayom lamilchamah, Listen, Klal Yisrael, you are about to go to war today.” The Gemara notes that the unusual usage of the opening words “Shema Yisrael” alludes to the prayer of Shema Yisrael. Klal Yisrael was given a message: They should not be afraid of war with their enemies. Since they have the merit of reciting Shema Yisrael in the morning and evening, they have nothing to fear.

Additionally, officers were appointed to announce which soldiers were exempt from battle and were directed to return home. This list included: those who built a new house and did not yet move in, those who planted a vineyard and did not yet harvest it, and those who got engaged but were not yet married. An announcement was then made that anyone who is afraid and disheartened should return home. The Mishna lists the opinion of Rebbe Yossi HaGelili that the latter exemption referred to people who were afraid of receiving punishment for their aveiros, sins, including the aveirah of speaking between placing on oneself the tefillin shel yad and the tefillin shel rosh.

But why should a person be afraid of this aveirah, when he has the merit of saying the Shema, which the Kohen told the soldiers would protect them? The Dinover Rebbe, Reb Tzvi Elimelech Spira, answers that Shema Yisrael is not just an affirmation, but indeed a commitment to live and act in accordance with the reality of Shema Yisrael. The words of Shema say that a person should love Hashem with all his heart, his life and his money.

The Sfas Emes explains that the tefillin shel rosh (worn on the head) represents thought and the tefillin shel yad (worn on the arm) represents action. Speaking in between placing the two of them demonstrates a disconnection between action and thought in the performance of mitzvos.

The tefillah of Shema is so powerful that it is inserted in the middle of the Musaf Shemoneh Esrei of Rosh Hashanah and at the conclusion of Yom Kippur. Shema represents the foundation of emunah, faith; it is said from a very young age and should be said by every Jew when dying.

This week begins the month of Elul, in which the chapter of Tehillim “L’Dovid, Hashem ori” is added at the end of davening. In this chapter there is an allusion to the month of Elul in the word “lulei,” which when read backwards spells Elul. In it, Dovid HaMelech says that if war approaches, I trust in Hashem. The Nesivos Shalom explains that in the month of Elul, we are in the midst of a war. There is a daily battle between the soul and the desires of the body. We are in a constant struggle to follow the word of Hashem. In Elul, the war intensifies as the yetzer hara, evil inclination, senses the approach of Rosh Hashanah and fears his impending doom.

The Sochatchover Rebbe says that in Elul we must grab all the opportunities that we can. The best way to prepare for Rosh Hashanah is to focus on the present, and not think about the errors of the past. A powerful mitzvah which we can seize on daily is reciting Shema in the morning and at night, with the intent of connecting to Hashem and committing our ideals to action. This will grant us victory in the war between our soul and our body in the month of Elul.


Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim is the associate rosh yeshiva of Passaic Torah Institute (PTI)/Yeshiva Ner Boruch. Rabbi Bodenheim can be reached at [email protected]. For more info about PTI and its Torah classes, visit www.pti.shulcloud.com

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