THE SHEMA – PART 3
The third major theme that I see in the first two passages of the Shema and in virtually all of the third passage (Num 15:37-41) is that we should provide ourselves with virtually constant reminders of our connection to God and God’s laws. These reminders are set forth in three forms.
You will bind them as a sign upon your hand a they will be frontlets between your eyes. This command is understood and observed by the t’fillin that we now wear for morning services on weekdays. I say now because my understanding is that in ancient times, they wore worn in some forms all day. The t’fillin, head and arm contain the four passages in the Torah where they are commanded. They are a very physical reminder of to Whom we are responsible.
“And you shall write them upon the doorposts of your home and upon your gates.” This, of course, refers to the mezzuzot we put up on the front and sometimes interior doors of our homes. (The word “mezuzah actually means doorpost, but let’s next get semantically picky}. The parchment inside contains the first passage of the Shema. We are thus reminded, when entering our homes (or offices) that ours are Jewish homes, miniature representations of the Temple, where Jewish values are vital.
The third of these reminders are “fringes on the corner of your garments”. There are the fringes on the tallit we wear in shul and the fringes on the “tallit katan” that a number of our co-religionists wear under their street clothes. The paragraph in Numbers makes it clear “…you will see them and remember all the commandments of the Lord…”
Why do we need all these reminders? We need them because we are human and fallible; because we will “follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge” (not just sexual lust but a whole lot of desires and temptations), but rather to be holy to your God. God reminds us again in verse 41 “I am the Lord, your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God. I, the Lord your God.” The Tzitzit paragraph comes immediately after the incident where a man is discovered gathering wood on Shabbat. If we can forget a concepts as fundamental as Shabbat so soon after Sinai, it become ever so much clearer that we need constant reminders of our subservience to God.
We have a special relationship to God who loves us and saved us and requires, in return, love and observance of God’s laws. So why do we add this to our prayer service? My take is this: The Shema is recited almost immediately before the Amidah the anthology of nineteen prayers on weekdays or seven on Shabbat or Yom Tov, in which we are going to praise God, thank God and, on weekdays anyway, ask for “stuff”. The Shema, coming right before this monumental prayer reminds us Whom we are speaking to, our indebtedness to God and our relationship with God. It helps create a frame of mind and a context to maintain the appropriate level of reverence and humility while addressing and petitioning God.
The three paragraphs we call the Shema, then, are so fundamental to who we are and what we believe that they deserve and require out total concentration when they are recited in the morning and evening services. Most people cover their eyes while reciting the first verse, symbolically cutting of the rest of the world and its distractions. Each word should be articulated slowly, carefully and distinctly. Our focus should be intense and our minds should dwell upon the meaning of the words and the concepts they communicate. In the best case it will ultimately leave us feeling closer to our God and our tradition.
Again, I add the disclaimer that I am neither halachic nor scholarly authority. I have two goals. First, I am delighted to share whatever insights I have gained over the years. Second, and more important, I want to encourage others to study and ponder our great literature and tradition and to formulate your own understanding in order to make your encounter with God and Judaism more spiritually rewarding and meaningful.