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Prayers, for the most part, are addressed to God. Yet one of our most important prayers, begins “Shema, Yisrael…” “Listen people of Israel…” The words of the prayer call on us to hear it’s words.

The words of the Shema, as well as the first half of the V’ahavta, come from this week’s Torah portion in Deuteronomy, Va-etchanan. “Listen, Israel! Adonai is our God, Adonai is One!” For many Jews it is the first prayer learned as a child and the last thought offered at the end of life. Throughout their lives, many Jews offer the Shema at every prayer service, and it is the last phrase before sleep and the first words uttered upon awakening.

The Shema is often referred to as “the watchwords of our faith.” A ‘watchword’ embodies a principle or guide to action of an individual or group. It can also be used as a sign of recognition among members of a group. Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin tells the story that after World War II, Rabbi Eliezer Silver went around Europe looking for Jewish children hidden as Christian orphans in monasteries. Rabbi Silver would simply approach the children and say “Shema Yisrael.” If a child completed the sentence, Rabbi Eliezer would claim the child as a Jew.

Imagine what offering the Shema each night and each morning might do for you!

Rabbi Sandra M. Bellush