Publishers of
Chassidic thought
in clearly explained English


V’Ahavta Eis Havaye Elokecha


One of the best-known passages in the Torah is found in this week’s Torah portion (Deuteronomy 6:4): “Hear, O Israel, G-d is our G-d; G-d is One.” This all-important verse – in which the Hebrew names for “G-d” are, respectively, the Tetragrammaton (which is so holy it is forbidden to be pronounced, and which is therefore pronounced Hashem or (more precisely) Haveye except during prayer or formal Torah reading); Elokeinu (meaning “our Elokim,” or “our G-d”); and Hashem or Havaye again – is possibly as famous in the original as it is in English: Shema Yisroel, Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Echad. It and the immediately following verses (5-9), together with other passages to be discussed below, are so central to our religion generally, and to our personal worship in particular, that recitation of the Shema is the focal point of our daily prayer service.

The Shema prayer actually consists of the verse Shema Yisroel itself, followed by the statement, “Blessed is the name of His glorious kingdom forever and ever.” We then recite the rest of the passage (Deuteronomy 6:5-9), which begins, “And you shall love Havaye Elokecha (“G-d, your G-d”) with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” This first portion of the Shema prayer is sometimes referred to by its initial Hebrew word, ve’ahavta (“and you shall love”). Following this, we go on to recite a passage (Deuteronomy 11:13-21) whose main theme is reward and punishment: “And it shall be, that if you hearken diligently to My commandments, which I command you this day, to love G-d your G-d and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul, then I will give you the rain of your land in its due season … that you may eat and be satisfied. Take heed for yourselves lest your heart be seduced, and you turn aside and worship other gods and bow down to them. [Then] G-d’s anger will be kindled against you, and He will shut up the heaven and there will be no rain, and the land will not give its fruit….” This second passage of the Shema prayer is referred to by its initial Hebrew words, v’haya im shamo’a (“and it shall be, that if you hearken”).

(There is also a third passage to the Shema prayer. However, the above are considered the main portions.)

Jewish mysticism teaches that G-d’s holy names express specific aspects of G-d, much as a person might be called “the wise one” to express that aspect of his or her personality, or “the kind one” to express that particular aspect. In addition to such descriptive, or “adjectival” references to G-d as Omnipresent or Allmighty, the Kabbalah refers to several Divine Names comprised of various amounts of words or letters. Two of these are the “Name of 42” (identified with the prayer Ana B’Cho’ach, which contains 42 words), and the “Name of 72.” The Name of 42 is associated with G-d’s attribute of g’vurah, strength or restraint, the tendency of which is not to give forth but to withhold; not to smudge over the boundaries between things and thereby allow them to meld and blend together, but to sharply distinguish and enforce the lines separating one thing from another. The Name of 72, on the other hand, is associated with G-d’s attribute of chesed, kindness, the tendency of which is in fact to give forth unreservedly.

Now, the first passage of the Shema (from the word “ve’ahavta” (“and you shall love”) through the word “u’vish’arecha” (“and in your gates”)) contains 42 words. This corresponds to the Divine Name of 42. The second passage, however, is associated with the Divine Name of 72. This is counterintuitive, because the theme of the first passage, v’ahavta, is clearly love of G-d – this seems more appropriate to the Name of 72 and the Divine attribute of chesed than to the Name of 42, associated as that is with the Divine attribute of g’vurah. Conversely, the second passage, v’haya im shamo’a, expressly states “If you do good, you will be rewarded, but if you sin you will be punished” – a theme that certainly seems more suited to the Name of 42 than to the name of 72.

This matter may be understood in accordance with the statement of the Zohar that the “lights” change places, so that “left” becomes included in “right.” A common metaphor in mystical literature is that of G-dly emanations or revelations as “light” which are so bright, so powerful, that they must be contained within “vessels,” through which we can perceive and withstand their influence. The Divine attribute of chesed is associated with the right side, and the attribute of g’vurah with the left. Thus, the above Kabbalistic teaching means simply that it is possible for the light suited for one vessel to “change places” and express itself through a different vessel, so that, for example, the light of chesed is expressed through the vessel of g’vurah and the light of g’vurah through the vessel of chesed. (See the adaptation of the discourse Erda Na on the Torah portion Vayeira, where the concept of oros and keilim – lights and vessels – is explained in a different context.)

The Shema prayer is an example of this: the first passage, outwardly dealing with love of G-d (a function of chesed) has an underlying, inner aspect of g’vurah, as seen from its association with the Name of 42. The second passage, outwardly dealing with strict justice and punishment (a function of g’vurah) nevertheless has an underlying, inner aspect of chesed, and is associated with the Name of 72.

Yet the above is only a superficial explanation, for we have not yet explained what these underlying, inner aspects of the Shema passages are.

To do so, we must first discuss the Kabbalistic teaching (Zohar I, 18b) that the first verse of the Shema (“Hear, O Israel…”) involves yichuda ilah, “higher-order unification,” while the next sentence (“Blessed is the name…”) involves yichuda tatah, “lower-order unification.”

The concept of “unification” should not be misunderstood. G-d Himself needs no “unification,” since He is by definition One and indivisible; His existence is the only true existence, so that there is very literally nothing else but Him. However, it arose in G-d’s will to create our physical world, in which things appear, to us at least, to exist in their own right, and consequently, we limited beings cannot see things as they truly are: that is, absolutely non-existent in their own right and utterly included within G-d’s all-encompassing unity.

What is more, G-d did not create our physical world directly; it would simply not have been able to endure direct exposure to G-d’s creative life-force. Instead, G-d channeled His life-force into the universe through a series of successively less spiritual stages, until the point at which even a completely physical world could come into being. (As explained elsewhere, these countless intermediate stages can be broadly divided into the four spiritual realms of Atzilus, Beriah, Yetzirah and Asiyah, each of which contain the ten progressively lower manifestations of G-dliness known as the ten sefiros, or Divine attributes. Of these, chochmah (“wisdom,” or the faculty into which new ideas spring into consciousness seemingly from nowhere) is the highest, and malchus (“sovereignty”) is the lowest, so that, in a general sense, the most sublime spiritual level in the “hierarchy” is chochmah within the realm of Atzilus, and the relatively lowest level is malchus of the realm of Asiyah.)

Not only to us mortals does it appear that we possess an existence of our own, but also each stage of this spiritual hierarchy appears to allow for the existence of that stage, i.e., even these lofty spiritual levels cannot appreciate the true perspective – G-d’s perspective – on the universe: that there is just nothing else, physical or spiritual, but G-d. The higher the spiritual level, the more apparent it is, to be sure, that that level and all it contains (e.g., angels or souls) are nothing outside of G-d Himself; nevertheless, if a given level were truly and completely able to see that, it could not, by definition, exist.

In a general sense, we can say that the spiritual realm of Atzilus is characterized by such an open and pervasive manifestation of G-dliness that it really can be said to possess no independent existence outside of G-d, and is therefore itself G-dly. In Atzilus, there can be no perception of “independent” existence; Atzilus is one with G-d even according to our perception. By contrast, the successively lower levels of Beriah, Yetzirah and Asiyah cannot be called “G-dly”; they must be thought of as mere creations.

Now, from G-d’s perspective, none of the above is relevant; G-d is One and the same whether in the highest spiritual realm or this lowest physical world. The entire hierarchy exists merely to conceal more and more of G-d’s omnipresence from our perspective until a physical world (in which G-d’s presence – which is still fully here whether we see it or not – is totally concealed) can come into being, resulting in existence as we know it. The purpose of all this is so that we Jews can express G-d’s sovereignty even under conditions where it is not at all apparent, by ignoring the temptations of this physical world and instead submitting to G-d’s will by studying Torah and performing mitzvos. By doing so, we reveal more and more G-dliness, not only in this world, but throughout all the levels of the hierarchy.

Thus, “unification” can have two meanings. One is that, by suffusing the universe – at each stage of the spiritual hierarchy – with G-dly light (through Torah study and mitzvah performance), we actually cause each stage to rise to a higher spiritual level, since it now perceives G-d’s unity to a greater degree and therefore cannot remain as a “separate” level inconsistent with that unity. Put another way, assume the apparent existence of level Y is a result of its inability to realize that there is a higher level, level X, above it, whose influence in fact permeates and sustains level Y but in a manner imperceptible to level Y. Once the existence of level X is revealed to level Y, however; once the influence of X becomes manifest and apparent throughout level Y; there is no longer any level Y. Its entire existence was due to the lack of perception of level X, and when that is removed, level Y simply becomes level X. This type of unity is a true unity, in that the lower level has literally ceased to exist and is now united with the higher. When this happens in the sense that the created universe – spiritual as well as physical – is elevated to the point of utter absorption into G-d’s all-encompassing unity, so that there truly is nothing else but Him, it is known as yichuda ilah, “higher-order unification.”

There is a lower form of unity as well. This is the state in which we are aware of ourselves as independent beings; we have not yet attained the level of utter bitul, or nullity before G-d, at which we lose all sense of self and are simply absorbed into G-d; yet we subjugate ourselves absolutely to G-d and negate our own wills before His. Here, too, there is but One Will active in the universe; not, however, because we have ceased to exist, but because we utterly defer to G-d. This is known as yichuda tatah, “lower-order unification.”

In sum: “higher-order unification” means that nothing exists but G-d; “lower-order unification” means that whatever exists is as nothing before G-d. The term “unification” refers to our bringing about in ourselves and in the universe in general, an awareness and manifestation of G-d’s unity – but in actual fact, this unity is the true state of affairs all along.

Having said all the above, we can now return to our analysis of the Shema.

The great Kabbalist Rabbi Yitzchok Luria (known as the Ari, of blessed memory), explains that in the first verse of the Shema, the juxtaposition of the Divine names in the phrase, “G-d is our G-d,” Havaye Elokeinu, represents the Divine light transmitted into the sefiros, or attributes, of chochmah and bina (“understanding”) within the realm of Atzilus.

Creation is described as yesh me’ayin, something from nothing, because it all comes from G-d, Who is utterly unknowable and unreachable and can, in a sense, therefore only be described as “Nothingness.” Chochmah, the highest of the ten sefiros, is so called because, like the human conceptual faculty, which is the highest of our faculties and seems to somehow beget new ideas out of nowhere, chochmah is the spiritual pinnacle of the created universe, above which is the Creator – the ultimate Ayin, or “Nothingness.” This is hinted at by the verse (Job 28:12), “From whence shall chochmah [wisdom] be found,” which can also be understood to mean, “chochmah will be found [to come] from ayin [‘nothingness’].” The first stage (in our context) of creation is the transmission of G-d’s “light,” or creative life-force, from that unknowable level of ayin – which “light” is called the Or Ein Sof, the “light of the Infinite One” – into the spiritual level of chochmah of Atzilus.

Only chochmah can contain the G-dly life-force of the Or Ein Sof within itself, because G-d does not manifest Himself in a place where His Unity is not recognized as absolute. Only chochmah is characterized by that quality of bitul, utter nullity of self, that is required for G-d to manifest Himself, much as a person’s faculty of chochmah is not a functioning intellectual faculty in its own right (as is, for example, the next lower stage, bina, or “understanding”), but is merely a receptacle for the flashes of insight which will spring up within it.

And just as the “germ of an idea” that flashes into chochmah is then transmitted to the next stage in the intellectual process – bina – which expands upon that point of insight and fleshes it out until it is understood, so does the spiritual “spark” of G-dliness that was invested within chochmah then proceed to the spiritual level called bina, where, however, it is no longer directly manifest within bina (since bina and all following levels are not utterly null but have some existence and function of their own), but is perceptible only to the extent it is found within that aspect of chochmah which was transmitted into bina. (Bina, in turn, next manifests itself – including the aspect of chochmah inherent within it – within the next lower level, which itself manifests itself within the next, and so on. This is the way the G-dly life-force is transmitted throughout all levels of creation, to the point where even the lowest level in the realm of Asiyah contains within it, albeit in a much more hidden way, that selfsame “spark” of G-d’s light – the Or Ein Sof – which is contained within chochmah of Atzilus.)

It will be understood from the above that chochmah of Atzilus is the point at which the G-dly creative force from the level of ayin is first invested within the universe. Chochmah of Atzilus, therefore, is the first expression of creation yesh me’ayin, something from nothing. Chochmah itself, however, is not fully an instance of yesh – “something” – since it is nothing more than a receptacle for ayin – “nothingness.” There is no question, though, that the next level after chochmah, i.e., bina, may be considered yesh, something, created out of the ayin inherent within chochmah.

(This “creation out of nothing” must be a constant, unceasing phenomenon. Since no creation possesses independent existence, were the Or Ein Sof, the G-dly creative force invested within creation, to cease even for an instant, all of creation would not only cease to exist, but in fact (since time itself is nothing but a creation of G-d which would then lose its existence) would never have been created at all, exactly as things were prior to the Biblical six days of creation. The fact that the Or Ein Sof constantly “flows,” as it were, into creation is alluded to by the verse (Genesis 2:10), “And a river flows out of Eden, to water the garden.” The use of the present tense (“flows”) is used instead of the expected past tense (“flowed”), because it refers to the necessarily unceasing transmission of G-dly creative energy from ayin (symbolized by chochmah) to yesh (symbolized by bina). The concept that not only the creation of the physical world needs constant renewal, but so also does that of even the most sublime spiritual levels, is likewise hinted at by the verse (Genesis 2:3), “which G-d created, to do.” The Hebrew word for “created,” bara, denotes creation out of nothing; this alludes to creation of the spiritual realms. The word “to do,” implying this physical world of deed and action, alludes to creation out of nothing, even in the physical sense.)

According to the Ari Zal, then, this is the mystical significance of the first verse of the Shema: the words Havaye Elokeinu in this verse contain the power to unlock the spiritual forces by which the entire universe—the entire hierarchy of creation, spiritual realms as well as physical—comes into being out of G-d’s utter “nothingness,” so to speak. “Havaye” represents the Ayin—“nothingness”—of G-d’s very Self, as embodied within the attribute of chochma of Atzilus; “Elokeinu” represents bina of Atzilus, the next lower level, after chochma, of Divine manifestation and the point at which creation is no longer identifiable (as is chochmah) with the Ayin of G-d’s very Self, but definitively termed “yesh”—“something”; and the juxtaposition of these names—Havaye [is] Elokeinu—alludes to the unification of the two: the transmission even into bina (yesh) of the sublime and transcendent G-dliness that is contained within chochma (Ayin), to the point that Havaye actually IS Elokeinu.

Now, this is crucial: we said that creation of “something”—even the most sublime spiritual levels, as discussed above—out of nothing is a continuous process; the Divine life-force must be transmitted into the universe unceasingly. At the first instant of creation, G-d initiated this process on His own; humankind, which had yet to be created, could not have done anything to “deserve” or elicit it. Yet from then on, G-d expects us to participate in this spiritual dynamic: we must do our part by acting in such a way as to merit the continued existence of the universe. This is accomplished through Torah study and mitzvah observance.

The above is why the words “Shema Yisroel”—Hear, O Israel—precede the words Havaye Elokeinu. This first phrase represents the prerequisite for G-dliness to flow from “Ayin” to “Yesh,” that is, Jewish effort to first raise ourselves and the rest of creation up to G-d.

It is explained elsewhere (see, e.g., the adaptation of the discourse V’Hinei Anachnu M’Almim Alumim on the Torah portion Vayeishev) that, in a mystical sense, the spiritual accomplishment of mitzvah observance is that, by using the physical objects of this world in the service of G-d (for example, by putting on T’fillin—made of cowhide—or by eating kosher food), we extract the “spark of G-dliness” embedded within that physical substance and elevate it to a higher spiritual level. The Kabbalah teaches that there are a total of 288 such “sparks” (in a broad sense, for the 288 can be further divided into countless fragments, as explained elsewhere). These are elevated into holiness through the power of the Divine “Name of 52,” associated with G-d’s attribute of Sovereignty. The point of all this, in our context, is that the Hebrew word “shema” alludes to the above. This is because, by the grammatical principle of gematria, the first two letters of the word, “s­hema”—the Hebrew letters shin and mem—are numerically equivalent to 340 — which is the sum of 288 and 52. The third and final letter of the word “shema,” the Hebrew letter ayin, has a value of 70. An additional feature of this letter of the word “shema” is that, in a Torah scroll, tradition requires that it be written larger than the surrounding letters. To understand why the numerical value and the size of this letter are meaningful in our context, we must first understand the following:

The “structure” of the Jewish soul parallels that of the spiritual hierarchy mentioned above: the highest faculty of the soul is termed “chochmah,” the next lower, “bina,” and so on down through “malchus”—exactly as in the spiritual realms.

By going about our business in this physical world, performing mitzvos every step of the way, we Jews liberate the abovementioned 288 sparks of G-dliness from being “stuck,” as it were, in this mundane realm, and elevate them back to their heavenly source. Technically, they are elevated through the spiritual hierarchy of the three lower realms (B’riah, Yetzirah, and Asiyah) until they reach the lowest level (malchus) of the exalted realm of Atzilus. This point—malchus of Atzilus—is the point from which the 288 sparks were “launched,” as it were, into the lower realms, and is thus considered their spiritual source (even though, to be sure, the 288 sparks originated on an even loftier plane before being sent from malchus into the lower worlds).

Perhaps it would help to think of malchus as a dock from which ships depart to sea. Vessels at sea all started out at the dock, but of course, before coming to that launching point, all the passengers and luggage were at their respective homes. The true origin of any given passenger is not the dock, but the house in the hills (let us say) from which he or she set out on the journey. (In fact, we can go further back and say that the person’s origin was even prior to that: we may trace them all the way back through their childhood into the womb if we wish to go that far. This illustrates that spiritual levels, too, can be described as “originating” at some point or other, but in fact, this depends on the context. For the true, ultimate origin of all, spiritual as well as material, regardless of the paths they traversed from that point onward, is in G-d’s own Self.)

Now, malchus of Atzilus is identified with the Divine Name of 52. Thus, the process which has just been described is hinted at by the first two letters—shin and mem—of the word “shema,” for, as mentioned, these letters have the combined value of 340, which equals 288 plus 52. In other words, these letters symbolize our successful fulfillment of our task in this world: to perform mitzvos and raise the universe up to its spiritual origin.

And yet, it doesn’t stop there. From malchus of Atzilus, the 288 sparks are raised even further, up to their antecedent source, which is the spiritual attribute of bina. This level is symbolized by the third letter of the word “shema,” the letter ayin.

The letter ayin is numerically equivalent to 70. This parallels the seven “emotional” attributes of the spiritual hierarchy (these being chesed, g’vurah, tiferes, netzach, hod, y’sod, and malchus), each of which is a composite of all ten attributes (the seven so-called emotional” attributes themselves plus the three “intellectual” attributes of chochma, bina, and da’as). In other words, the highest individual level of the “emotional” attributes is “chochma of chesed,” followed by “bina of chesed,” and so on down through “y’sod of malchus” and, finally, “malchus of malchus.” Altogether, there are 70 such individual levels to the G-dly attributes, and it is to these that the letter ayin alludes.

At this point, we can benefit from comparison to our own attributes, which, as noted, parallel the ten sefiros—G-d’s attributes, so to speak. Intellectually, it is possible to conceive of any given emotion as an abstract ideal: we know what “love” ought to be, or what “awe” ought to be. In practice, however, a person seldom realizes the ideal manifestation of any emotional attribute; they are usually diminished by our own failings (selfish feelings may interfere with unreserved love, for example) or by the constraints of corporeal existence. For this reason, when we speak of the emotional attributes as they are expressed in practice, we refer to them (collectively) as z’eir anpin, a Kabbalistic term meaning “small (or “diminished”) face: the face we show to the world in practice is but a miniature reflection of those “ideal” attributes which we are only capable of understanding intellectually, in theory, as it were.

Similar to what was discussed above about each stage originating in a still prior stage, we may therefore say that the intellectual attribute of bina (“understanding”) is the spiritual source of the attributes within z’eir anpin (abbreviated as “z.a.” and pronounced, “za”). The attributes as they exist within bina are “larger than life,” as the saying goes: they are the full, undiminished expressions of each sefirah, “larger” and more complete than could be expressed in practice. This is the mystical significance of the fact that the letter ayin of the word “shema” must be written (in a Torah scroll) in a large format. It symbolizes the 70 individual levels of za as they are found after being elevated up to their own source in bina.

To summarize: the word “shema” symbolizes the initiative taken by us Jews in our relationship with G-d. We cannot expect G-d to channel His creative life-force into the universe without our first eliciting this wonderful result by performing mitzvos—which elevate the 288 sparks of G-dliness up to their spiritual source in the Name of 52 (associated with malchus of Atzilus). From there, G-d “helps us out,” further lifting them to their even deeper source in bina of Atzilus.

Another reason this dynamic is expressed by the word “shema” is as follows:

The letters shin and mem of “shema” spell the Hebrew word for “name” (shem). As explained elsewhere, the concept of a “name” is not at all the same as the actual thing named. That is, the name “Jack” is a useful tool by which to refer to the named person, but everyone understands that the actual person “Jack” is in no way “contained” by, or otherwise connected in any way to, his name. This fact is why we usually associate the sefirah of malchus with G-d’s “name,” so to speak. The entirety of creation, spiritual as well as physical, was brought into being by means of G-d’s attribute of malchus, which itself is nothing whatsoever in comparison with G-d. Malchus is nothing more than G-d’s “name,” not G-d Himself. Thus, for all its grandeur, all its wonder, all the awe we feel from contemplating the greatness of creation, the entire universe is not even a reflection of G-d’s Self, as it were, but only His “name.”

On a more exalted level, though, we may apply the same concept even to the spiritual levels of the realm of Atzilus, which are usually associated with G-d Himself. For in truth, all such comparisons and associations are relative to our mortal understanding; when you get right down to it, as far as G-d’s “Self” is concerned, there’s no room for anything to be “associated with” Him. G-d is G-d. Any concept other than G-d, plain and simple, is just not G-d, and is utterly insignificant next to Him. From this perspective, even the loftiest levels of Atzilus (which are spiritually superior to malchus) are really as nothing, in comparison with G-d Himself. In this context, we apply the metaphoric symbol “name” to the spiritual level that is the very source of Atzilus itself—that inconceivably exalted level known as Kesser (“crown”). As the intermediate level between the Infinite One Himself (the Or Ein Sof) and creation, Kesser, like malchus, is not “G-d”—it is only His “name,” as it were, not Him Himself.

As applied to what we have been discussing, the word “shema” also alludes to this. The shin and the mem spell shem (“name”), a reference to Kesser, because the sparks of holiness we have raised, through mitzvos, to the level of malchus are then further “boosted” up to their superior source in bina by no less a potent spiritual force than Kesser itself.

And still—that is not the end of it. For above bina stands one higher sefirah, that of chochma. The word “shema” in the phrase “shema Yisroel” (“Hear, O Israel”), represents elevation to the level of bina, but the word “Yisroel” symbolizes an even further elevation, all the way up to the first sefirah, chochma. This is because the letters aleph and lamed contained within the name “Yisroel” spell the name of G-d that is mystically associated with the attribute of chochma. (Because of its holiness, this Divine name is pronounced “Kel” (i.e., not its true pronunciation) outside the context of prayer or public Torah reading.) The entire word “Yisroel” can be read an anagram for the phrase “shir Kel” (song of Kel).

We may sum up this part of the discussion by saying that the phrase Havaye Elokeinu (“G-d is our G-d”) in the Shema prayer represents the continuous flow of G-dliness into the universe in a manner of creation of “something” out of “nothing.” G-d’s very Self, as it were, is the “Nothing” that is the Source of all “something,” and is manifest (as was explained earlier) only within the sefirah of chochma, which is represented by the Divine name Havaye. From there, the G-dly life-force proceeds into the created universe (“something”) by way of the sefirah of bina, represented by the name Elokeinu. Yet this continuous bestowal by G-d of existence upon the universe depends upon us Jews. We must first elicit it by performing G-d’s mitzvos, which raise the G-dliness inherent within creation (the 288 sparks of holiness) up unto its spiritual source—as symbolized by the words “Shema Yisroel” and their placement before the words “Havaye Elokeinu.”

(Note that the G-dly attribute of chochma is invested within the Torah. Since it is only within chochma that G-d’s “light” is manifest in an inner, pervasive manner (as opposed to merely an outer, transcendent way), it is only by Torah study that we can draw G-d’s light within our very selves in such a thorough, pervasive manner (or p’nimi).)

The final phrase in the verse Shema Yisroel, Havaye Elokeinu, Havaye Echad—“Hear, O Israel, G-d is our G-d, G-d is One”—is Havaye Echad (“G-d is One”). Now, in a sense, it should be obvious that this phrase cannot (merely) refer to G-d being One, for there is, in fact, nothing but G-d—so what is the meaning of describing Him as “one”? It only makes sense to speak of something as “one” where there is the possibility for plurality. Then we can say that, instead of “many,” there is “one.” In the case of G-d, there is no possibility of any “other” (G-d forbid), so what do we mean by “G-d is ‘One’”? As a matter of fact, he is the ‘sole,’ the ‘only’—not merely ‘one’!

The explanation is that the description of G-d as “one” really applies to His attributes, the sefiros of chesed (kindness), g’vurah (might, restraint), and so on. What we mean is that although these attributes are seemingly opposites (for example, kindness and strict justice seem incompatible), G-d’s all-pervasive unity effectively renders them all insignificant and they do not stand in opposition to one another. As expressions of G-d, the sefiros are all one and the same; there is no room for plurality even on this level.

The above is the state of affairs in the heavenly realm of Atzilus: all is G-dliness, there is nothing else. The verse we recite immediately after the first verse of the Shema—that is, the statement “Blessed is the name of the glory of His kingdom for ever and ever”—alludes to the drawing down of this absolute unity as found within the realm of Atzilus even throughout the lower realms of B’riah, Y’tzirah, and Asiyah. This is so because the word “blessed” (baruch in Hebrew) connotes “drawing down,” and the word “olam” (“forever”) also means “world,” or “realm,” alluding to the drawing down of G-d’s unity throughout all realms, so that there is, indeed, nothing else but G-d even in the perception of those realms. Our sense of bitul—utter nullity and deference before G-d—should be so absolute that we achieve this perspective on reality.

This is the yichuda ilah, “higher-order unification,” which the Ari Zal taught was associated with the first verse of Shema: our perception of the truth of G-d’s unity and omnipresence is so real that in fact, we lose all independent existence before Him. Nothing exists, in the higher realms or the lower, but G-d Himself.

(Alternately, one can explain that yichuda ilah refers to the root source of the transmission of creation from “Nothing” into “something” (as explained above in connection with chochama and bina of Atzilus), while yichuda tatah, “lower-order unification,” refers to the transmission of “Nothingness” into “somethingness” as applied within the lower realms of B’riah, Y’tzirah, and Asiyah—even to the point where “Nothingness” is manifest in the physical “something” of our earthly world.)

Based on all the foregoing, we can now understand the concept mentioned at the beginning: The first paragraph of the Shema (the paragraph known as v’ahavta) talks about love of G-d, yet, paradoxically, is associated with the Divine Name of 42 (which has to do with fear and awe); conversely, the second paragraph of Shema (known as v’haya im shamo’a) is all about reward and punishment, yet is associated with the Divine name of 72 (a name of love). It was explained that it is possible for the light suited for one vessel to “change places” and express itself through a different vessel, so that, for example, the light of Chessed is expressed through the vessel of Gevurah and the light of Gevurah through the vessel of Chessed.

In fact, we now can recognize this phenomenon as taking place within the first paragraph of the Shema. When we truly achieve the realization that there is literally nothing else but G-d, as explained above, we naturally want nothing so much as to break free of the bonds of our illusory, earthly existence and be reabsorbed into the truth of G-d’s all-encompassing unity. This is what is meant by the verse within the v’ahavta paragraph, “And you shall love Havaye Elokecha (“G-d, your L-rd”) with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” What more can there be beyond “all your heart and all your soul”? The answer is that “all your might” (b’chol m’odecha) refers to breaking free of our earthly bounds, shattering the constraints, the vessel, that keeps us firmly moored to this world. (This does not mean, of course, that we are to die, G-d forbid, but rather, that even within the context of our earthly existence, we are not bound by our physical, bodily “vessel” with all its distractions and preoccupations. Instead, we realize that there is nothing else-even here-but G-d alone, and thus, we lead a purely G-dly existence, unaffected by worldly constraints.)

Thus, on the surface, the theme of the v’ahavta paragraph appears to be what the words say: love of G-d, a function of the attribute of Chessed. Yet beneath this surface understanding, there is an undercurrent of Gevurah-strength, power. We do love G-d, to be sure, but that borders on the irrelevant: one must exist in order to love, and we don’t even wish to exist as separate beings from G-d. We want only to burst the boundaries-a function of Gevurah-and unite with G-d Himself. The vessel, or keli, of v’ahavta is that of love and Chessed, but the inner light within this paragraph, its or, the true meaning of loving G-d “with all your might,” is actually the strength and Gevurah of the Name of 42.

In fact, it is a feature of the Name of 42 that it allows one to rise up, beyond all boundaries, towards G-d; all spiritual ascents are a function of this Divine name. That is why our sages ordained that the bedtime Shema, recited before retiring to sleep, also contains this name (identified with the prayer Ana B’choach)-so that, during sleep, the soul may ascend to heaven by means of its spiritual power.

This concept-the underlying aspect of Gevurah as the driving force behind what is manifest on the surface as Chessed-is known as Gevurah she’b’Chessed. (The Gevurah aspect of Chessed; recall that each of the Sefiros is actually a compound of all of them, so that there is a Chessed she’b’Chessed, a Gevurah she’b’Chessed, and so on.)

When reciting the Shema, one should therefore focus one’s concentration (kavana) on the concept of Gevurah that underlies the surface meaning of the paragraph. This is appropriate, since kavana-intention at prayer-is an inward matter, so deals primarily with the inner meaning of what is being said.

All the above applies to the first paragraph, v’ahavta. With respect to the second paragraph, v’haya im shamo’a, however, it is just the opposite. There is a common spiritual dynamic called ratzo v’shov, “running forth” and “returning.” This means that we must first reach out in an attempt to draw closer to G-d (“running forth” to Him), and only after that do we experience G-d’s response, His reciprocation (“returning”)-the increased spiritual benefits bestowed upon us after our efforts. Here, v’ahavta is the ratzo and v’haya im shamo’a, the shov. The underlying theme of this second paragraph is an outpouring of increased blessing coming down upon us from G-d (a function of Chessed). This is the inner light, the or, of v’haya im shamo’a. However, such a potent outpouring of G-dly benevolence would be too much for us mortals to withstand unless it were tempered in some way, made suitable for our consumption, as it were. That is why the surface, outer, level of this paragraph deals with what seems to be withholding, restraint-Gevurah, as in “if you are good you will be rewarded appropriately, but if not I will withhold the rains, etc.”

Rain, in fact, provides a good illustration of this idea. Water is necessary for things to grow, and is basically a blessing. But if allowed to fall unrestrained from the heavens, there would be flooding and destruction instead of beneficial effect. Therefore, instead of one deluge, G-d divides the water into tiny raindrops which are, individually, harmless. We thus see how separation and limitation-functions of Gevurah-are essential to bestowal of benefit-Chessed. (This is why, in the Shemona Esreh prayer, we mention rain (“v’sein tal umatar liv’racha”) within the blessing associated with Gevurah (“atta gibor l’olam, Hashem”).)

Lo Tov Heyos HaAdam Levado
Mayim Rabim Lo Yuchlu L'Chabos
B'Etzem HaYom Hazeh Nimol Avrohom
Erda Na
Chayei Sara
V'Avraham Zakein Ba Bayamim
Vayachp'ru Avdei Yitzchok
Vayashkeim Lavan Baboker
Vayeavek Ish Imo
VeHinei Anachnu M'Almim Alumim
Ner Chanukah Mitzvah L'Hanicha
Vayigash Eilav Yehudah
Chachlili Einayim Miyayin