Twice a day during prayers, once in the morning and once in the evening, a Jew is required to say the Sh’ma. The first six words, loosely translated (in old English) as “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our G-d, the Lord is One” are a centerpiece of a Jew’s confirmation of monotheism.
Although books upon books have been written explaining the meaning of the Sh’ma, I’d like to discuss the introductory prayers before the evening Sh’ma (the Sh’ma is both preceded and followed by prayers). The first prayer before the evening Sh’ma aptly speaks about G-d as being the one who “brings on the evenings”. To properly understand this one must be aware of the fact that the Hebrew word for evening, “erev“, has the same meaning as “being mixed together”. In other words, although during the nighttime everything is blurry and unclear and seemingly mixed together as a result of the lack of sunlight, it is G-d who has determined that this is what is needed for the benefit of mankind. Moreover, the same G-d who brings the confusion of the night also brings the clarity of the day. Living in a modern world with electricity and late-night restaurants this may not appear to be such a novel idea. However, in the ancient world when no one dared venture out of his home after sundown partly because of a fear of the demons who supposedly ruled the night, this idea was revolutionary.
That’s the simple meaning of the prayer. However, in a deeper sense I believe it is talking about the dark times, both past and present, in the historical life of the Jewish people. Thus, during periods of confusion and trouble when it’s hard to believe that there is a purpose to all the trials and tribulations and daily struggles, and it even appears that G-d has receded from history or doesn’t exist at all, the prayer is telling us that we must hold fast to the belief that G-d has not disappeared and that He is guiding history in such a manner for some specific and beneficial purpose. Although it may be difficult to fathom this, especially in the face of the seeming lack of justice in the world, nevertheless we must try.
It is interesting to note, especially for those of us who live in Israel, that “erev” is also the same word for “Arab”. Once again the meaning, although difficult, should be clear. In other words, it’s not by coincidence that there are seemingly endless difficulties with the Arabs since it is G-d who is “bringing on the Arabs”. What this means is that the Arabs are G-d’s emissaries, as it were, whose purpose is to give the Jewish people enough knocks on the head until we finally wake up and “get our act together” – we have to relearn who we are, what our true purpose in the world is and how this purpose is intrinsically related to the Jewish people having complete sovereignty over the Land of Israel. Unfortunately I’m afraid that until this happens the Arabs will simply continue to fulfill their role.
After such a difficult opening prayer the following prayer seemingly changes direction and talks about G-d’s never-ending love for the Jewish people. However, in my opinion this is not a zigzag but rather a confirmation of the fact that although it is G-d who brings on all the “evenings” of history, including the Arabs in our time, there is no need to worry since G-d has not left us for a moment and His love for the Jewish people remains intact. Moreover, just as the clarity of the sunny morning washes away the confusion of the dark night, in the end, after all the difficulties, frustrations and setbacks, everything will work out and the light of history will shine once more.
Only after such a deep realization is a Jew properly ready to recite the nighttime Sh’ma.
The quicker we understand all of this and in doing so start reconnecting to our real selves, the quicker the suffering, both for the Jewish people and ultimately for the rest of humanity, will end.