Our Torah portion this week contains the fundamental Jewish verse: Hear, O Israel, Adonai our God, Adonai is One. This sentence, the Shema, is a focal point of Jewish liturgy. It also has a unique movement associated with it: Traditionally, we cover our eyes when we recite the Shema. But why?
The classic answer is in the Talmud, Brachot 13b, in a story in which Rabbi Judah the Prince covers his eyes to shut out the distractions of his students. Codified in the Shulchan Aruch, the premise is clear: We cover our eyes to eliminate distractions from our sight, so we can more fully concentrate on the Divine uniqueness and singularity. Certainly there are enough distractions in our modern lives to make this explanation relevant today.
But our tradition does not stop there. The Noda Biyhudah, Rabbi Yechezkel ben Yehuda Landau, offers a second reason for covering our eyes. He teaches that it is difficult to have faith in the Holy One when we only have to look around us to see all the suffering in the world. For the Noda Biyhudah, we cover our eyes to block out the troubles of the world, to help us access our faith. Though he was writing in the 17th century, this insight applies in our own days. We look at our world, at the tragedy of the war in Israel, the economic troubles at home, the increasing anti-Semitism in Europe, and it is easy to despair. We cover our eyes and recite the Shema to remind ourselves that the world also contains Divine love, justice, and truth. We can have hope despite the tragedies we face in the world.
Why do we cover our eyes as we recite the Shema? We have just commemorated Tisha B’av, the day of the destruction of the First Temple and the Second Temple. In today’s world, it is also a time of war, inequity, and trouble. Yet Judaism teaches us not to despair. It is Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath of Consolation. We cover our eyes as we recite the Shema to access our faith and hope, so that we can return to our lives with joy and love once again.
Heda Bloch Kovaly was born into a prosperous Czech family. After surviving Auschwitz, Heda traveled back to Czechoslovakia after the war to a friend who had promised to be “an anchor” for his Jewish friends. He refused to open the door to her pleas for help. She then tried to go home. The farmer who was occupying her home slammed the door on her saying: “You’ve come back? Oh no. That’s all we’ve needed.”
Heda’s first husband, Rudolf Margolius, was a survivor of Auschwitz and Dachau. Disgusted by Fascism, he joined the Communist party and rose to a prominent government position. But he was tortured and murdered in an anti-Semitic show trial which the Czechoslovak Communists staged in 1952. The Communists persecuted Heda for years after as “the widow of the Zionist capitalist Jew.”
She and her four-year-old son were hounded by the secret police and shunned by former friends. She was fired from her job and evicted from her home. She fled into an unheated shack in the mountains, where she struggled to support herself and her young child. To maintain her sanity, she began to write her memoir.
“Three forces carved the landscape of my life,” she wrote. “Two of them crushed half the world. The third was very small and weak and, actually, invisible. It was a shy little bird hidden in my rib cage an inch or two above my stomach. The first force was Adolf Hitler; the second, Josef Stalin. The little bird, the third force, kept me alive to tell the story.” Finally published in 1973 as “Under a Cruel Star,” her memoir was acclaimed as a masterpiece and hailed by critics around the world.
Heda Kovaly found the faith and hope to triumph over her suffering. This extraordinary woman lived through extraordinary times. How do we access our own hope and faith? We can cover our eyes and recite the Shema.