Parashat Va’etchanan
16 August 2019

Today’s Torah portion contains the verse that has become the core of Jewish worship, the daily recitation of the Sh’ma or Shema (Deut 6:4-9). We also read about the appeals of Moses to the people to observe God’s laws (Deut 4:1-40) which form the theological heart of Deuteronomy and of Judaism. They include the most fundamental precepts of monotheism and the prohibition of idolatry which are also at the core of Christianity and Islam, religions anchored on the belief of one God.

The passage on the Shema, on undivided loyalty and constant awareness of God, can be understood as part of Moses’ sermon on the first commandment. Moses repeats the Decalogue first presented in Exodus 20 (Deut 5:6-18), and stresses that Israel owes God its exclusive loyalty (4:32-40; 6:4-5), while God promises love, justice and transcendence: He is near Israel (4:7). The Etz Hayim commentary notes that in Torah scrolls and many prayer books, the letter ayin at the end of the Shema and the letter dalet at the end of ehad are spelled larger than the other letters, spelling ed (witness). This means that to recite the Shema is to testify to the unity and uniqueness of God.

I first heard about the significance of the Shema in Jewish worship from my priest-professor in Pentateuch (Torah) class which was attended mostly by young seminarians. Pointing out that we are also believers of one God and that the Book of Deuteronomy is also part of the Christian canon, he made us recite the Shema before we started our class sessions. I first heard the Shema being sung by a young nun who learned how to sing it from Sr. Helen Graham (a nun and graduate of many Bat Kol courses). When I was attending classes in the Bat Kol Institute in Jerusalem I got to sing the Shema myself with my Christian classmates coming from different parts of the world as part of our morning prayers. Is it appropriate for Christians to recite and sing the Shema like Jews?

In the Gospels, Jesus himself articulated the beliefs in the Shema. When asked which commandment is the first of all, Jesus answered by quoting Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and said: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” (Mark 12: 29-30). Similarly, when asked by a lawyer what must he do to inherit eternal life, Jesus also answered by saying the Shema (Luke 10:27).

I believe we pray best when we do it in the language we know very well. It is important for us to understand what we are affirming. But I found it best to sing the Shema in the language of the original revelation, in Hebrew, because as Etz Hayim says, in doing so we make a link to the Torah and to Jews all around the world, the people who first heard God’s revelation and let me add, to all believers in one God. For me reciting or singing the Shema is like singing the Our Father or reciting the Apostles Creed, though this is a shorter and more straightforward way to affirm our trust and commitment to one God on earth and the life to come.

For Reflection and Discussion: [1] Do you know how to recite and sing the Shema in Hebrew? (If you don’t, there are many samples in YouTube.) [2] Do you know someone who is not a Christian who believes in one God? What can you do together to show love of God with all your heart, mind, might and soul?
Bibliography: Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary (New York, 2001); The Pentateuch: Message of Biblical Spirituality (Minnesota, 1990); Harrington, editor, Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of Mark (Minnesota, 2002); Sacra Pagina, The Gospel of Luke (Minnesota, 1991).

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