In this week’s Torah portion, Parshas Vayigash, Yaakov (Jacob) and his son Yosef (Joseph) dramatically see each other for the first time in many years. It is a very emotional moment. Rashi explains (Genesis 46:29) that Yaakov recited the Shema upon seeing Yosef.
Was it time to say Shema? According to some, yes. However, according to the Maharal (Rabbi Yehuda Loew, 1520-1609) in his commentary on Rashi, Gur Aryeh, the reason that Yaakov said Shema was because the practice of tzadikim, righteous individuals, is to, at a moment of joy, be “mekabel ol malchus Shamayim,” the act of accepting upon oneself the yoke of the kingship of Heaven.” This means completely submitting oneself to the will of Hashem, realizing that all comes from Him, and that the role of the Jew in this world is to follow His mitzvos. Doing mitzvos is an expression of an outpouring of our love towards Hashem. If all is from Hashem, then any simcha that we may have- any joy that Yaakov may have felt upon seeing his son- deserves thanking and dedicating oneself to Hashem.
Any love that one has for another, according to Rabbi Yehoshua Leib Diskin (1818-1898), is really an expression of one’s true love for Hashem. If we are all made b’tzelem Elokim (in the image of G-d), then expressing and feeling love to a man is expressing and feeling it toward Hashem as well. Therefore, when Yaakov recited Shema, he was channeling his love of Yosef to its ultimate source- Hashem.
How is it that we can fully submit ourselves to Hashem? How can we begin to attempt to perform such an act when reciting Krias Shema?
If one looks at the commentary of Rabbeinu Bachya (mid-14th century) on Parshas Tzav, one may begin to find the answer. In Leviticus (8:23), the verse says, “And when it [a ram sacrifice] was slain, Moshe took its blood, and put it on the tip of Aharon’s right ear, and on the thumb of his right hand, and on the big toe of his right foot.”
What is the significance of placing blood on specific appendages of the body? Rabbeinu Bachya explains that each part of the body is representative of different human qualities. He gives the example of fingers. He explains that each finger correlates to a specific one of the five senses. The thumb is taste because one wipes one’s mouth with one’s thumb. The index finger is smell because it is often used to clean out the nose. The middle finger is touch because it can reach and touch the farthest. The ring finger is sight because it people clean out their eyes with that finger. Finally, the pinky is hearing because people stick their fingers in their ears to block out sound.
This idea always seemed very powerful to me in the context of the Shema. Perhaps, when one puts one’s hand over his eyes one is, in a sense, using all of one’s senses to acknowledge Hashem and submit his will to Him. When one covers one’s eyes during Shema, he literally uses everything he has to give, represented by his senses, in order to surrender to HaKadosh Baruch Hu, the Holy One, Blessed be He.
As well, Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) explains (Leviticus 14:8) that the hand and forehead are the most uniquely human parts of the body. They represent the actions we are able to perform and the thoughts that we are able to have that separate us from animal life. Therefore, when we place our fingers on our eyes at the beginning of Shema, we are taking all of our senses, via the vehicle that makes us uniquely human, and submitting our will to our Creator.
Many often think that Judaism asks a lot of its practitioners. This is true. However, Judaism also supplies us with the means with which to create the best kavanah, environment, and way to connect to Hashem through meaningful mitzvos.
We should all learn from the actions of Yaakov that at the moment when our emotions are heightened with joy and love that we must recognize where those feelings truly come from. If we are able to do this, then we will be able to constantly rededicate ourselves to Hashem.
by Rabbi Mordechai Weissmann