Hear O Israel: The Shema’s centrality: Parashat Vaetchanan (Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11)
As we emerge from Tisha b’Av and our annual three-week period of mourning the destruction and loss of our Holy Temples in Jerusalem, we are invigorated and inspired every year by Parashat Vaetchanan. It is the portion that includes both the Ten Declarations at Sinai (commonly mistranslated as the “Ten Commandments”) and the Shema: Shema Yisrael, Hashem Elokeinu. Hashem Echad (Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God. The Lord is One). The declaration is followed by the paragraph that begins: “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your resources.”
The Shema declaration is the central affirmation in Judaism. It defines us. At its inception, it defied a world of atheists and polytheists by proclaiming monotheism, an uncompromising belief in one God who created the world and who rules over it.
Our morning and evening prayers are constructed around that declaration, the three paragraphs recited with it, and the prayer’s attendant three blessings during the day and four at night. We recite the Shema during the waking hours and again as we go to bed. Parents recite it nightly with their children as part of the loving bedtime ritual that follows such mundane preliminaries as brushing teeth and cleaning up. And as one faces the end of this life’s journey, a Jew recites the Shema as part of that person’s final affirmation of religious identity, faith in God and the afterlife.
The study and analysis of the Shema and its three paragraphs consume the first several chapters of the Talmud. We learn why the Shema is recited within the first three hours of day and again as stars come out at night. And how must we recite it? Must we move our lips, or does it suffice for our eyes to scan the prayer book? Why do we cover our eyes with our hand as we affirm the declaration? What if a king who holds the power of life and death over us enters the synagogue at that moment and starts a conversation as we are praying the Shema?
These and many other technical rules are passionately debated in the Talmud’s first 20-plus folios, comprising close to 50 pages of mostly Aramaic text amid some Mishnaic Hebrew in Tractate Berakhot. The technicalities and details take weeks, months, even years to master. They are the subject of several more chapters in Rambam’s Mishneh Torah compendium of Jewish law, and in the Shulchan Aruch, codified centuries later by the Sephardic Rabbi Yosef Karo. Subsequent insights and variant rules for Ashkenazic Jews were proffered by Rabbi Moshe Isserles of Poland.
Beyond the legalistic necessities for properly fulfilling the mitzvah to affirm night and day that our God is One, there also is so much more: the meaning and implications of the words.
As explained a century ago by the Chofetz Chaim, it is not enough to “love God” without action. When we find love and happiness, we share the word with others; the same is expected of Jews who love God with all our hearts, souls and resources. We are bidden to share the word with other Jews, to reach out and teach them what we have found, to bring them back home from foreign teachings and alien cultures. Like Abraham our Patriarch, who invited wayfarers into his tent to eat meals that Sarah and he prepared for visitors so that they would learn from his hospitality to thank and bless God for the food they eat, we are challenged to draw lapsed Jews closer to God.
To love Him more fully and with maximized appreciation, Rambam teaches that we also should acquire knowledge of His ways and His creation by studying the pertinent science. Gain an appreciation of how the rain-and-wind cycle operates through evaporation and condensation, with the wind directing rain clouds from oceans across the skies so that they shower drier inland regions, too. Learn how the human eye works: the role of the iris in regulating proper lighting, the retina, even the eyelids protecting from injury and repeatedly lubricating, while the eyebrows absorb salty sweat before it trickles down to irritate.
And the Shema’s message means learning to accept the “bad” with the “good,” to accept that there are some things we never will be able to understand, but to understand that His direction of our lives is purposeful and loving, and therefore to accept what comes our way. To acquire cognition that many things that initially seem to be awful setbacks often, with time’s passage, emerge later as having been among the greatest of blessings, that some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.
Rabbi Dov Fischer, an attorney and adjunct professor of law, is a senior rabbinic fellow at the Coalition for Jewish Values and congregational rabbi of Young Israel of Orange County. Many of his writings are collected at rabbidov.com.