By Moshe Yehuda Bernstein
One of the most unusual features of the Jewish declaration of Divine unity expressed in the Shema Yisrael is that the name of God is mentioned three times:
שמע ישראל יהוה אלהינו יהוה אחד
Shema Yisrael! Adonai (1), Elohaynu (2), Adonai (3) Ecĥad
Hear, O Israel! The Lord (1), our God (2), the Lord (3) is One.
One would expect that a declaration of God’s unity would contain only one name instead of three. One can understand the mystical paradox embedded in this concept by examining another triple proclamation from the Hindu Vedanta:
The world is an illusion
Only Brahman is real
Brahman is the world.
This statement begins by informing us that the world of our senses—the world of nature, the physical world—is an illusion. First, as the Buddha expressed it, the hallmark of this world is impermanence. Furthermore, quantum physics has shown us that matter itself has no substance. Even the atom, in the words of Werner Heisenberg, is “a tendency of consciousness.”
The only reality is Brahman, which signifies the Supreme Unity from which all other Beings, whether spiritual or physical, emanate.
Yet, paradoxically, that Supreme Unity or Absolute Reality permeates and manifests as Maya, the subjective illusion of self and other, good and evil, the reality of space-time as we know it... As we are “stuck” in the limited perspective of subject/object duality, we are normally unable to experience that Oneness. Through liberating the mind (moksha), however, one yields to that transcendent space of what the Hindus call the Eternal Witness, where the subject/object illusion dissolves and one experiences Supreme Unity, the state of enlightenment that exists “already always” in the simple condition of Being.
The Shema expresses the very same paradox, but in reverse order.
שמע (Shema) is, above all, an injunction to “comprehend” rather than merely to “hear”. ישראל represents transcendent consciousness, the Higher Self. ישראל, Yisrael, contains the letters לי ראש, (li rosh ,“my head”) indicating the higher faculties of the “head”; while יעקב, Yaakov (Jacob), refers to the lower instincts of the עקב (eikev or “heel”.)
What are we supposed to comprehend?
That the seeming duality of the transcendent and immanent, the infinite and the infinitesimal, Brahman and the world, all of these opposites are indeed One. The name יהוה (Adonai) signifies the undifferentiated, transcendent, timeless aspect (היה הוה ויהיה, haya, hoveh ve-eheyeh, “I was, I Am, I Will Be”), while אלהינו (Eloheynu, which is grammatically in the plural) represents our collective perception of the Divine as manifest in this world of multiplicity and immanent in nature (the name אלהים is the same numerical value as הטבע, the word for nature). יהוה אחד, Adonai echad, “God is One”, signifies that state of consciousness where duality no longer exists; in its place is the reality of Pure Awareness and Unity Consciousness.
It is for this reason that the final letter ayin of שמע and the letter daleth of אחד are written in large script. Together they form the word עד or “witness”. The simple meaning of this is that, as a people, we witnessed this Unity in the revelation on Mount Sinai. On a deeper level, however, it is also referring to the Eternal Witness within every one of us, the Pure Awareness in which subject and object dissolve, and God is truly One, in the ultimate sense of the word.