Confronting Reality – Lessons from Sh’ma


Putting pen to paper can be rather dangerous because words have a way of articulating what is in the author’s heart while often expressing ideas that were held in abeyance. Yet sometimes it behooves us to bring issues to the fore; to remind ourselves that in Judaism there are no forbidden zones. There is only an immense fear of having to deal with the ramifications of our queries.


Nonetheless, apprehension should never be the justification for controlling or regulating our thoughts. Hence, I ponder in bold and clear writing, can something inherently bad actually be a blessing? If idolatry is the antithesis of Judaism, why does God permit it to exist? In our narrow-mindedness, are we throwing out the proverbial baby with the bath water?


Almost every Jew, regardless of denomination or affiliation, understands the deep connection the Sh’ma has in our liturgy. In English the words seem to stem from the lyrical prose of a spiritual poet: Hear Oh Israel, the Lord our God; the Lord is one. Yet in Hebrew the words take on a more mystical and philosophical identity. The Kli Yakar explains that in the Sh’ma there are two different names attributed to the God of the Jews; one refers to the God of compassion and the other refers to the stern and demanding God. He maintains that by using these conflicting concepts, the Sh’ma tries to address the prevailing idea of God’s duality. A God of compassion versus the God of rule and law. The Sh’ma in its purest form opens a dialogue with those who question monotheism and want to replace it with polytheism. Its concluding words, hashem echad, indicate that although the emergence of dual names may suggest polytheistic views, the truth is hashem echad; there is only one God.


Hence the Sh’ma addresses what was the single biggest threat to monotheism. Can the explanation open up the door to heresy? Can it degrade the preeminent status of Judaism? Perhaps. Yet perhaps its primary purpose is to permit a greater good to be served.  By addressing a subject that many deem taboo, it allows polytheism to be a stepping stone to opening the minds of those who find the concept of a deity inconceivable.


As the progenitor of monotheism, we Jews have been an abysmal failure. Judaism was meant to be an “or l’goyim”, a light unto the nations. Yet we are barely able to sustain our own people. Our flame flickers only to issue a distress signal while our reserves of energy remain dangerously low. We are an abyss in the realm of world religions, barely treading water and remaining afloat. Anti-Semitism may be a global concern, but there is little fear of Jewish life making inroads in most countries.  Obviously there is little chance in Islamic controlled countries, but even in the non-Muslim world of China, Japan, and India we are inconsequential and insignificant. Left under our own devices, the flame that flickers would have long ago been extinguished. Our saving grace is the successes of religions we detest, those religions that for thousands of years have done nothing but cause us grief. While many a Jew questions religion, their conviction is often reinvigorated by the awareness that over two and half billion people believe in God. Their path to spirituality is intensified due to society’s general acceptance of monotheism.


Yesterday the Jewish world’s greatest fear may have been the power and persuasion the world’s dominant religions held over us. Although that threat still exists it is being confronted by groups such as Jews for Judaism and others. However, today our world must deal with an invisible but pervasive reality. More of our youth are opting out of organized religion than ever before, distancing themselves from a belief in God altogether. Sometimes we are too focused on not violating the second commandment that we forget the importance of the first one.


I want to share an article I was sent on Facebook that should be read by all who care about the sh’ma of the future. A father is writing to his estranged daughter, and finally realizes the truth about himself.

Reposted with permission from a father to his daughter (who has left orthodoxy) after reflecting on the fast day Tisha B’av.

My dearest Suri,

As I fasted today, I sat and reflected on what our fast is all about. Why was our beautiful home in Yerushalayim destroyed? Why did the presence of Hashem leave us? What did we do to drive ourselves into this long bitter golus (exile)?

I always knew the answer, but I don’t think I understood it as well as I do right now. It was destroyed because we were judgmental of those who did not ACT the way we wanted them to act. We were embarrassed of those who did not DRESS the way that we wanted them to dress. We looked down at those that did not TALK the way we wanted them to talk. And our misplaced ego caused us to think that we are better than they are. This is what caused us to destroy ourselves completely. Without having an ayin tovah, a favorable and understanding eye on those around us, we are not deserving of having the divine presence of Hashem live among us. We threw ourselves out with our self-righteous mindset.

Which group of us caused the destruction? The ones “on the derech” or the ones “off the derech”?

On this day I sit and cry… my eyes fill with tears… the epiphany just hit me like a ton of bricks: It was not the ones wearing the jeans (as an example) that caused the destruction, rather, it was the ones not wearing jeans who then looked down upon those who wore the jeans! WE are the ones who destroyed the Beit Hamikdash and we have not yet corrected our sin! In fact, with Torah and mitzvot being so strong… we have perhaps even strengthened our sin… we have taken it to a higher level.

I look at myself… am I not part of the group who uses our beautiful religion to look down at others? And if so, am I not the one responsible for our current exile? What good is my fasting and sitting on a floor if I cannot face the truth that “I” am currently responsible for this tragedy?!

I now fully realize that it is not you and your friends who are preventing Moshiach from coming… it is me and my friends!

I wrote my own kinut: Woe is to me for I have repeated and repeated the original sin that caused the churban (destruction of the Temple)! Woe is to me for I have stabbed my own flesh and blood! Woe is to me for I took the holy Torah that is supposed to be sweet and peaceful “dirachehuh darchei NOAM vichal nesivosehuh SHALOM” and I used it to form a dagger which I then used to stab you – and others – over and over again!!

And so after a long day of fasting and contemplation, I look back at the way that I treated you and for this I now sit and cry. My dear sweet beloved Suri !! How can I ever take back the pain that I caused you? How can I ever repay you for the smiles and hugs that you so deserved… but didn’t get from me because I was too busy justifying to myself why it is OK for me to look down at you… to judge you harshly… and to actively destroy the Beit Hamikdash? How can I give you back the lost years?

My dear Suri, a long long long time ago, I looked into the future and dreamed about the day that you would grow up, mature, learn right from wrong, wake up from your selfishness and finally come ask me for forgiveness… but after inner searching… “I” grew up, and “I” matured, and “I” learned right from wrong, and now “I” finally finally woke up from MY selfish, haughty, egotistical, judgmental attitude! And now on this painful day I turn to you and I ask you – no, I BEG you – for forgiveness!!

I accept upon myself to shower you with love and affection, with hugs and kisses, and to do everything in my power to always be there for you through thick and thin! I pledge to work so so hard to make up for all of the pain that I caused you. I pledge to never look down at you, your friends, or on ANY JEW ever again. I am DONE with the negative attitude! I am DONE with being the judge and jury to another Yid! I am DONE with thinking that I am BETTER than ANY other Jew in Klal Yisrael. I am DONE being a part of the problem… and I pledge that as of right this moment… I will become a part of the SOLUTION!!

My Suri, please open your heart to me… please open your arms to me… hug me, hold my hand and let us build the Beit Hamikdash (The Holy Temple) together…

What do you say?

Your loving Totty

PS: Because a lot of people wondered how the daughter feels about the letter, note that the daughter had originally posted this on an Off the Derech group online. She said she really loved the letter and her father for sending it, and wanted to share it so others could appreciate it as well.

I conclude by quoting the words of Rabbi A.Y.Kook: “I don’t speak because I have the power to speak; I speak because I don’t have the power to remain silent”


Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jack Engel

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