The Martyr’s Shema

“…You shall love Hashem, your G-d, with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might…” – Devarim 6:5

וְאָהַבְתָּ אֵת ה’ אֱלֹקֶיךָ בְּכָל-לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל-נַפְשְׁךָ וּבְכָל-מְאֹדֶךָ – דברים ו,ה

Our Sages explain the commandment to “love G-d… with all your soul” to mean, “even if He takes your soul,” i.e., to devote yourself to G-d even at the cost of your life.

The Talmud (Berachos 61b) relates:

When they [the Romans] took R’ Akiva out for execution, it was the time for the recitation of Shema. As they combed his flesh with iron combs, he was accepting upon himself the kingship of Heaven [reciting the Shema]. His disciples said to him, “Our teacher, even to this extent?” He replied, “All my days I have been distressed by the verse ‘with all your soul’, which means ‘even if He takes your soul.’ I said, ‘When shall I have the opportunity to fulfill this?’ Now that I have the opportunity, shall I not fulfill it?”

shma Israel

The students of R’ Akiva were men of great stature in their own right. Certainly, they were not surprised that the saintly R’ Akiva could suppress his physical pain and fulfill the mitzvah of reciting the Shema even during his execution. But the Shema proclaims G-d’s Oneness, which means that nothing exists outside of Him: the true identity of all of existence is the will of G-d that is causing it to exist. R’ Akiva’s students therefore understood that by reciting Shema at that moment, R’ Akiva was declaring that he recognized G-d’s Oneness even within the torture he was suffering for studying Torah! This caused them to wonder, “Even to this point?” Could R’ Akiva identify G-d’s singular existence even in this blasphemous attack on G-d and His Torah?

R’ Akiva, however, did not view his execution as a challenge to G-d’s Oneness. On the contrary, in R’ Akiva’s eyes, G-d’s Oneness in this world meant that even negative experiences (that did not directly contribute toward his worship of G-d) were assisting him in his service of G-d indirectly—by allowing him to commit to G-d in spite of them. In fact, all his life, R’ Akiva had yearned to fulfill the mitzvah of dedicating himself to G-d to the point of ultimate sacrifice. Now that the Romans were offering him that “opportunity,” he found the Oneness of G-d even in their cruelty.

—Likutei Sichos, vol. 6, p. 126, fn. 35


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