Divrei Torah

Hearing the Shema Within Our History


The Shema is the catch-all phrase that Jews throughout time define themselves by. We go to sleep with this call as the last words of the day and the first when we wake up. We even strain to proclaim the last word of our life – Echad/One.

What can we learn from the three paragraphs that expound the meaning of the Shema’s declamation? The first paragraph included with the Shema oath, V’ahavta, is completely positive, but the next two paragraphs, vayyehim shemoa and vayidaber Hashem, have a rawkus tinge of negativity. Why would the negative be introduced to the commanding sentence that every Jew bears; a recitation that lies at the epicentre of our Jewish practice?

I suggest an overall story. The first paragraph of V’ahavta explicitly speaks about teaching your children the knowledge and awareness of G-d in their world. It bespeaks the love tone in the home. It should be easy for our children to invoke the Holy One and to grow G-d’s name within them unto their last breath.

Abruptly, there is a stern warning in paragraph two. Rashi says when people become saited, they are likely to lose G-d within their central self-identity. The text cautions “הִשָּׁמְרוּ לָכֶם פֶּן יִפְתֶּה לְבַבְכֶם וְסַרְתֶּם עֲבַדְתֶּם אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים וְהִשְׁתַּחֲוִיתֶם לָהֶם/Beware, lest your heart be misled, and you turn away and worship strange gods and bow to them” (Devarim 11:16) G-d’s wrath so many times has hounded Israel off His Holy Land. Even the Land, the Torah says, is repulsed by our arrogant sinning.

Paragraph three is the tragic result of paragraph two when the Land of Israel is no longer accessible or permitted to us. This is the dispersion of Jacob’s children to the four corners of the world. Even as we make efforts to remember G-d’s mitzvot through our ritual garments, the tzitzit, another warning is issued: וְלֹא תָתוּרוּ אַחֲרֵי לְבַבְכֶם וְאַחֲרֵי עֵינֵיכֶם אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם זֹנִים אַחֲרֵיהֶם: “and you shall not wander after your hearts and after your eyes which stray to licentiousness.” (Bamidbar 15:39) So we see in both paragraphs following the v’ahavta, when we are satiated and in the Land or yearning and in exile, we are in danger of reverting to our baser selves; ripping away from G-d.

If we investigate the l’maans within paragraphs two and three, we hear G-d teaching how to return our faith conclusively. G-d gives us a formula:

If we adhere to the mitzvot then we will be assured a long existence on the Land for us and our progeny.

Even when we are separate from the Land, the way of return is to reefy the mitzvot. Concerning tzitzit, G-d reminds us that He reaches to us in our history. G-d redeemed us, l’maan/in order that we should know Him and that G-d alone will be our G-d, “Liot lachem l’Elohim.”


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