Thursday, August 20, 2015

"Shema Yisrael"

By HaRav Mordechai Greenberg
Rosh Yeshiva, Kerem B'Yavneh

"And it will be, when you approach for war, that the Kohen will come close and speak to the people. Let him say: Listen, Yisrael, you are approaching a war against your enemies. Do not let your hearts be faint... for it is your G-d who goes with you to fight your enemies, to help you." [Devarim 20:2-4]. The sages have taught us, "Even if you have no other merit than reading of 'Shema Yisrael' (Listen, Yisrael), you are worthy of being saved." And on this basis we recite the prayer, "He who guards Yisrael, guard the remnants of Yisrael, and do not allow the destruction of Yisrael, who say the prayer 'Shema Yisrael.'"

This implies that the nation is required to make use of its innate strength when it goes to war and at the same time to have faith that G-d will help them. This is also what was written in the Torah portion of Eikev: "And you shall remember that your G-d is the One who gives you the strength to succeed in war" [8:18]. In his sermons the RAN notes that it is not written that G-d provides the strength in war but rather that G-d gives us the strength to wage war. The Talmud teaches us the same principle with respect to livelihood, matchmaking, and the study of Torah. Together with the effort it is also necessary to pray. "Either one without the other will not be sufficient." [Nidda 70b]. Jewish tradition does not ask a person to sit idly by while studying Torah and praying, and to trust in his Father in Heaven for salvation. Rather, a person must put in his own effort, with all his might, and then G-d will help him finish the task.

There are times when the Holy One, Blessed be He, indeed does instruct us to remain idle and to trust Him, as happened when He split the Red Sea: "Why are you crying out to me? Speak to Bnei Yisrael and let them continue on their journey..." [Shemot 14:15]. "G-d will fight for you, and you will remain silent" [14:14]. The same is true of Gideon, who gathered an army of thirty thousand soldiers. But the Holy One, Blessed be He, commanded him to release almost all of them, until only three hundred were left. And with these men Gideon won the battle. Rav Kook explained that there are periods when the level of faith among the people is low, and if the nation would win based on the strength of the people alone they would feel that their own strength was the cause of the victory. In such cases G-d does not let us participate, so that everybody will clearly see that the battle was fought by G-d. This is what happened when we first started out, in Egypt, and again at the time of Gideon. On the other hand, when the nation is strong in its faith, such as in the time of Yehoshua, G-d tells the people to use their strength while not forgetting who is the ultimate source of the strength.

On the nineteenth of Tammuz 5676 (1916), in the middle of the First World War, a London newspaper reprinted an article from the Hungarian newspaper "Fasti Hirlap." The article quoted a letter from a Hungarian soldier at the front, who had the following request: "Please do me a favor and ask our Jewish neighbor Chaim to explain the words 'Shema Yisrael' to us. When the bullets are flying all around our heads and soldiers are falling like wheat being mowed down, the Jewish soldiers begin to shout 'Shema Yisrael' and they are saved from certain death, while their non-Jewish colleagues are killed. As soon as you have the explanation of these words let me know, so that when there is a danger they will save my life." [From the book "Kerem Tzvi," Devarim, page 88. The author testifies that he "copied every word faithfully."]

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