Scholars of liturgy tell us there are three categories of prayer: petition, where we ask God for something; thanksgiving, where we thank God for something; and praise, where we praise God for something. Admittedly, the line between prayers of praise and of thanksgiving can be a little unclear.
When teaching this material, I then go on to ask about the Shema. Most of us have been taught at one point or another that the Shema is the "most important prayer in Judaism." If so, which category of prayer does it fit into?
The students then discover that the "most important prayer in Judaism" is not, in fact, a prayer at all. It isn't even addressed to God -- it's addressed to us, Israel, the Jewish people.
What is the origin of the Shema? There is a legend that places it in the encounter in this week's parasha between Jacob and his grandsons Ephraim and Menashe. The biblical text itself tells us that when Jacob was on his deathbed in Egypt, Joseph brings his sons to visit their grandfather. He doesn't know who they are and asks Joseph "mi elleh?," who are they?
Now we delve into the realm of midrash. Why didn't Jacob recognize his own grandchildren? Perhaps because they were dressed as the children of an Egyptian noble and spoke Egyptian rather than Hebrew to each other. So Jacob could not possibly believe that these assimilated young men were indeed his Hebrew grandchildren. When told that this is indeed who they were, he was distraught.
At that point, the grandchildren said to him "Shema, Yisrael. Listen up, Israel (remember that this was Jacob's other name, given to him by the angel). Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad -- Adonai is our God, Adonai alone." And Jacob was so relieved to hear this, he replied "baruch shem k'vod malchuto l'olam va-ed -- praised be God's name for ever and ever!"
This midrash comes to teach us that the essence of Jewish identity is not language or dress but belief and behavior. We are Jews not because we share our ancestors dress and language -- indeed, many Jews do not even have Jewish biological ancestors -- but rather because we share the Patriarchs' and Matriarchs' faith in God and observance of mitzvot.