י׳ בניסן ה׳תשע״ז (April 6, 2017) Hear O’Israel

This morning we said the Shema in the Lublin yeshiva, and it was a joyous occasion. Just as students at the yeshiva would have said Shema twice daily, we too declared to the world, “HEAR O’ ISRAEL. ADONAI IS OUR GOD, ADONAI IS ONE.”

And then, not an hour and a half later, we said the Shema standing outside the gas chambers at Majdanek, and it was one of the saddest and most beautiful moments of my life. In
remembrance of those one hundred thousand or more who were so mercilessly killed there. And in remembrance of what their final words most surely would have been, we cried to the world and to G-d, “HEAR O’ ISRAEL. ADONAI IS OUR GOD, ADONAI IS ONE.”

Ever since our prayer in the former synagogue of Tykochin, the Shema has captured me. Betsalel told us of how Jews all over the world, from the Bar Kochba Revolt so long ago, and now to the Shoa, all died with the words of Shema on their lips. The amount of dedication that takes has fascinated me. Think for a moment how much faith it takes to merely recite it as part of daily prayers. Crying out to the world that G-d is one. It’s a wonderful declaration of faith, not just personal, but to tell everyone in earshot, and to tell every Jew, and to tell every person.

And I was struck by the courage of so many Shoa victims to be saying these hallowed words in their final moments. It says so many things, all just in those 6 short words. Clearly, it first declares your faith in G-d. But more than that, it says that despite everything you have gone through, the ghettos, the concentration camps, and the viciousness of Nazi officers, you still have faith in G-d. And secondly, it is one final, extremely powerful resistance to the Nazis. The purpose of everything they did was to to dehumanize the Jews. Ghettos, and then to the camps, and to take all their belongings, and to take their clothes, and to shave their hair, a most basic representation of individuality. And then as Betsalel said, their method of killing was to remove the most fundamental aspect of life, the ability to breathe. But to say Shema as you die makes all their efforts for naught. It says, “You have tried to kill my humanity, but you have failed! I am still alive! I am still human! And above all else, I am still a Jew!”

When I think about this, I wonder if I would have the strength to say that. I am still not certain enough in my faith in G-d and I fear that I would not have the courage to say Shema as I die. I have not been saying the bedtime Shema for many years, though I now want to start doing that once more. Lastly, I hope that when my time does come, I hope that my faith will be strong enough to have those words as my last. To me it is the most powerful expression of faith possible, and one that I wish for the courage to give.
ISAAC BERMAN
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