THE SHEMA PART 2
The Shema, as I noted earlier, is an integral part of our statement of faith and of our prayer services. It consists of three passages from the Torah, Deuteronomy 6:4-9, Deut. 11:13-21 and Numbers 15:37-41. Part one dealt with the first verse (Deut 6:4), the definitive statement of monotheistic connection to the one God. I would like to look at the rest of the first passage.
The first full paragraph Deut 6:5-9) appears to me to express three important themes: Love God; Make God’s law part of your life and transmit it to your children; provide yourself with reminders of your relationship with God (t’fillin and mezuzah).
What does it mean to love God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might? What is the nature of this love? Is it like the love of a child for a parent, the love between dear friends, or something else? I am reasonably certain it is not romantic love or the love of a parent for a child, they really don’t fit the relationship. In my mind it is sort of a combination of the dependence, respect and gratitude a child feels for a parent, combined with a sense of awe combined with dutiful devotion. It is a mutual relationship, God’s love for us is the last thing mentioned in the blessing immediately before the recitation of the Shema. We conclude that blessing by saying Blessed are you, God, who chose the people Israel with LOVE. In fact, the word AHAVAH -love- appears at least six times in this blessing, all referring to God’s love for us.
Loving God with all your heart, soul and might mean living one’s life in a manner that reflects one’s relationship to God. In biblical Hebrew the heart is the seat not of emotion, but of intellect. We are being told to enrich our minds and to be conscious of the way our actions reflect our sense of our covenantal relationship. The soul, I would think, expresses the emotional and spiritual part of ourselves. The term expresses a need to feel the visceral importance of getting near to God by making God part of the way we live. One’s might (the Hebrew root can mean “very”) means, to me, a willingness to make large sacrifices, perhaps even martyrdom for the sake of loving God. Look at all the individuals and communities who chose faith even in the face of the sword. This is a difficult demand and perhaps unreasonable to some, so suffice it to say that the expression of love for God should be allowed to affect the very essence of who we are, to run deep within us.
The next theme is the instruction to keep the words (of Torah) upon our hearts and “teach them diligently to our children”. And speak of them at home and away, evening and morning. I do not believe that the action commanded is speaking alone. For one thing, we are not with our children all the time and lecturing is not necessarily the most effective way of teaching proper behavior. Children understand that the old expression “do as I say, not as I do” is a load of fertilizer. Actions speak louder than words. If we want to teach our children appropriate behaviors, whether in ritual observance or, to me even more important, interpersonal relations, we have to be positive role models. We, all the time, but especially in the presence of our children or students, need to teach by example. The Law should be our behavioral guideline all day. What we eat and drink, how we treat other people, the ethics of our business dealings, all these are the lessons we teach. We must teach them well and carefully if we want to ensure that the religious and ethical tradition we cherish will thrive and survive.
In many ways the second paragraph (Deut11:13-21) is similar to the first. There are two big differences that I see. First, in the opening verse of this section, we are not only told to love God, but also to serve God. Second is the introduction of the idea of reward and punishment. If we observe and obey the laws we are given we receive reward, if not there is punishment. Because early Israel was primarily an agrarian society, the reward and punishment are couched in terms that made sense in that context. The reward promised is seasonal rain, resulting in good crops – survival and prosperity. The punishment is withholding of the rain and banishment from the promised land. In this respect this passage seems to be addressed to a more mature, sophisticated audience. It assumes people who can understand that actions and words have consequences both long and short-term. This is, indeed, the generation that is toughened and informed by forty years in the wilderness, journeying and learning after their parents’ generation, the simpler folk who left Egypt and could not outgrow the slave mentality, had died off.
In my opinion once there is acceptance of the existence and Oneness of God, then love of God, obedience to God and transmission and teaching of values are essential to the survival of our people and our tradition and society.