Vaetchanan 5771 — God is One

Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad
Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God, the Lord is One
…Deuteronomy 6:4

These are probably the most familiar Hebrew words in the entire language. We are commanded to say these words in the morning when we get up, and we are commanded to say them when we lie down at night.  Traditionally, if possible, these words are the last words on a dying Jew’s lips.

Jews who don’t know any other Hebrew, will know the Shema. Jews who don’t know the meaning of any other Hebrew words, will know what these six words mean.

Really understanding the whole verse is a big project.  So for now, we’ll just look at two words:  Adonai Echad.

The simple translation would seem to be “God is one.”  But nothing is that simple.

The Hebrew which is so familiar seems pretty simple and straightforward. But if you look at different prayer books and Bibles you will find a variety of translations for the simple “Adonai echad.”  Here are how a few different sources translate the Shema:

Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord –Soncino and King James Version

Hear, O Israel ! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone –Jewish Publication Society

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is One. –Hertz and Siddur Sim Shalom

Hear, O Israel: Hashem is our God, Hashem is the One and Only –Artscroll Tanakh and Siddur

Hear, O Israel: Adonai is our God, Adonai alone. –the New Siddur Sim Shalom

The classical commentators understand this verse in a few different ways:

Rashi explains the verse: “God is our God now, not the God of other nations; but in the future he will be One God, as it says “for then I shall change the nations to speak a clear language so that they may all call out in the name of God, and it says on that day God will be One and His name One.” For Rashi, the unity of God in the verse is His universal recognition by all of Mankind – For Rashi, like for many others, Ad-nai Echad is talking about the uniqueness of God.

Rashbam: God is our God, we don’t have any other God with Him. God is one, only to Him we will serve…again, Adonai Echad means God is unique, and our relationship with him is special.

Rambam takes it in a different direction—not just God’s uniqueness, but God’s unity: “We believe that this Primal Cause [God] is One. [His is] not like the oneness of a pair, nor like the oneness of a species, nor like man, whose complex oneness may be divided into many units, nor like the oneness of a simple body, which is one in number but may be divided and separated without end. Rather, He is One with a Oneness that knows no parallel in any manner. This is the Second Principle, as affirmed by the verse (Deut. 6:4): “Hear O Israel, God is our Lord, God is One.”

As we can see, some Jews focus on God’s uniqueness; others focus on God’s unity in understanding this verse. We see a similar understanding of God in other religions. In Islam, God is also seen in both lights:

Uniqueness in Islam:
Abul A’La Mawdudi, Towards Understanding Islam
The most fundamental and the most important teaching of Prophet Muhammad (blessings of Allah and peace be upon him) is faith in the unity of God. This is expressed in the primary Kalimah of Islam as “There is no deity but Allah” (La ilaha illallah). This beautiful phrase is the bedrock of Islam, its foundation and its essence. It is the expression of this belief which differentiates a true Muslim from a kafir (unbeliever), mushrik (one who associates others with God in His Divinity) or dahriyah (an atheist).

Unity in Islam:
There is a principle called Tawhid (Unity). Everything originates from ‘one’ and eventually will return to ‘one’, as stated in the Quran: “We originated the first creation, so We shall bring it back (to its former state) again.” (21:104)

What I want to focus on today is God’s unity, which is a central concept to mystics of all types, not just Jewish mystics.

I first got interested in the idea of the Oneness of the Universe through studying Buddhism and physics. Some representative concepts/quotes:

“Since everything in this world is brought about by causes and conditions, there can be no fundamental distinctions among things. The apparent distinctions exist because of people’s absurd and discriminating thoughts.” …The Teaching of Buddha, Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai

“Sakyamuni Buddha and mystics down through the ages have taught that not only are all beings interconnected, we are the same being — there is only One of us. We are many, but we are also One.” … David Wigginton, web site.

The goal of Buddhist meditation practice is to sit and quiet the mind; Enlightenment is ultimately about seeing through the veil of appearances of the world around us to the essential essence of the Unity of the universe.

I found this concept attractive, and all the more so when I found that Western Physics, our rational, scientific approach to the world is saying similar things:

From “The Dancing Wu-Li Masters: An Overview of the New Physics,” by Gary Zukav: “A vital aspect of the enlightened state is the experience of an all-pervading unity. ‘This’ and ‘that’ no longer are separate entities. They are different forms of the same thing. Everything is a manifestation. It is not possible to answer the question, ‘Manifestation of what?’ because the ‘what’ is that which is beyond words, beyond concept, beyond form, beyond even space and time.”

Zukav (and others, such as Fritjof Capra, who wrote “The Tao of Physics”) take scientific proof for this notion that everything is a manifestation from a theory in physics called “Bell’s Theorem.” Again to quote Zukav, “ Bell ’s theorem is a mathematical construct which, as such, is indecipherable to the nonmathematician. Its implications, however, could affect profoundly our basic world view. Some physicists are convinced that it is the most important single work, perhaps, in the history of physics. One of the implications of Bell ’s theorem is that, at a deep and fundamental level, the ‘separate parts’ of the universe are connected in an intimate and immediate way. In short, Bell ’s theorem and the enlightened experience of unity are very compatible.”

Bell ’s Theorem speaks of “Non-locality.” A particle is split, and measuring it at location “A” seems to effect what you will see why you measure it at location “B.” Instantaneously, no “communication time lag,” i.e., much faster than the speed of light. It suggests that at some kind of fundamental level matter transcends space—it’s all connected somehow.

There are other principles in physics which also speak to the unity of the universe. E=Mc2 says that energy and matter are the same thing—so in a way, “stuff” is just another form of “energy.” Another interesting principle is the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. What this principle says is that at a sub-atomic level we can’t know both the exact location and the exact velocity of a particle—measuring unavoidably influences the results. One of my favorite bumper stickers is “Heisenberg may have slept here.”

On a more macro level, we are becoming increasingly aware of the interconnectedness of all of us who live on this planet. Polar bears, who live thousands of miles from the nearest “civilization” are endangered because of factories putting toxic chemicals into the air which find their way to the North Pole. It has been scientifically proven that acidification of lakes in Sweden is from pollution originating in other countries.

Learning that Judaism shared a similar understanding of the Unity of the universe was for me an important opening in my return to Judaism after years of being secular and dabbling with other forms of spirituality.

Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) teaches that this verse, these two words, Adonai Echad, is the most basic and fundamental principle in Judaism. A great Kabbahlist, the Ramchal (Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato) wrote a book called 138 Openings of Wisdom, as a kind of primer on Kabbalah. In the first “opening” Ramchal states:

“The oneness of Eyn Sof – He who has “No End”, blessed be He – lies in the fact that only His Will exists, and no other will exists except through Him. Therefore He alone is in control and not any other will. The entire structure is built on this foundation.

“God’s supreme unity is the foundation of faith and the root of wisdom…

“We must believe and have faith that the Supreme Emanator – blessed be He and blessed be His Name – is One alone, unified in all respects. This means that He alone exists, and only He exists necessarily: there is simply none other. And He alone controls everything. That He alone is in control is an obvious inference from the first proposition – that He alone exists. Since He alone exists, He alone is in control. This means that every other being that exists now is contingent upon Him.”

There is a passage in Isaiah that seems to be saying the same thing. Here is the conventional translation of Isaiah 45:5-6:  ”I am the Lord, and there is no one else, there is no God beside me; I girded you, though you have not known me; That they may know from the rising of the sun, and from the west, that there is none beside me. I am the Lord, and there is no one else.”

However, I would suggest the verse could also be translated as follows: I am the Lord and there is nothing else. Besides me there is no God. I girded you, and you did not know me. In order that they will know from the rising of the sun and it’s setting that there is nothing but Me. I am the Lord, there is nothing else.

There is also a “mystical strain” in Christianity. There is a verse in Ephesians which also speaks to this pervading Oneness of God: Ephesians 4:3-6, 13 “Endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; One Lord, one faith, one baptism, One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.”

The mystics say that there is no way we can truly know the ultimate Unity of the Ein Sof. As a Ba’hai prayer says: “Thy unity is inscrutable, O my God.” It is simply beyond human comprehension. We are aware of God through the Sefirot, which are ways that God manifests God’s self in the world. We strive to attain an understanding and appreciation of God’s unity, yet we know that ultimately we can never succeed—for as God told Moses, “Man cannot see My face and live.”

There are many paths to connect with God’s Unity: Buddhism, Islam, even Christianity and Scientific study. Judaism and Kabbalah is another way to connect with God’s unity—it’s the way Jews do it, studying Torah and doing Mitzvot.

If on a fundamental level religion and science both tell us that we are all interconnected in one vast, impenetrable unity, what does that say about how we should conduct ourselves in the world, how we should take care of the world, and how we should treat other people, whether Jews or Gentiles?

Reb Barry

Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

2 thoughts on “Vaetchanan 5771 — God is One

  • I really enjoyed your commentary. Have you ever read”God and the Big Bang Theory” by Mann? It’s a very plain spoken treatise on this subject.

  • Interesting and challenging post. I especially appreciated your conclusion. Shalom.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *