One of the reasons the prayer “Shema” is recited before going to sleep by religious Jews is that sleep is considered a sixtieth of death in Judaism and just as the Shema is the prayer recited when one sees death approaching, so too before one enters a state similar to death one recites the prayer.
The Shema prayer encapsulates who we are, what we are, what our role here in the world is. By reciting the Shema one is proudly identifying as a Jew who is willing to give his life at any moment for his creator. Additionally, the Talmud teaches that the Shema contains references to the Ten Commandments. In the Mishnaic period the Ten commandments were removed from daily prayers so the recitation of the Shema is a way of commemorating them and reminding ourselves of the ten foundations upon which Judaism is based.
It is related in the prayers on Tisha’a Ba’Av, (the National Day of Mourning in the Jewish calendar) that Rabbi Akiva was tortured to death by the Roman authorities for his rebellion against them in spreading the light of the Torah. The Romans scraped his flesh with iron combs and Rabbi Akiva joyfully exclaimed that all of his life he had been waiting to fulfill the concept of serving G-d “with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your resources”(as is written in the timeless Shema Yisrael prayer) and now he finally has the chance to do so. With that, he cried out the words of the Shema and passed on to the next world.
This tragically moving tale seems hard for us to grasp here in the twenty-first century. Would we be willing to give up our lives so whole-heartedly for G-d? The prayer of Shema Yisrael is essentially a proclamation twice-daily that yes; we too would give up our lives at any given moment for G-d.
Perhaps another incredible story that is somewhat closer to us in our times is that of Roi Klein, may G-d avenge his blood. Roi was a deputy battalion commander in the Golani Infantry Brigade of the Israeli Army. He lived in Eli with his wife and two sons. In the 2006 Lebanon War, Roi and his soldiers were fighting in Beit Jbeil. He noticed that a grenade had been thrown towards his soldiers. He realized there was no time to evade it and jumped on top of the grenade. His last words were none other than “Shema Yisrael!” His actions saved all of his soldiers. Roi was buried on his thirty-first birthday. He returned his beautiful soul to his maker and will always be remembered as a hero in Israel.