When I think about a favorite prayer, it’s difficult to choose one; but in terms of our regular liturgy the Shema has always had a special place in my heart. As a child I was struck by the experience of covering my eyes to recite those first two lines and I enjoyed kissing the fringes of my tzitzit during the third paragraph. As a teenager, it became the prayer which evoked memories of sitting in a field during services on Shemesh (RSY-Netzer’s summer camp). And as an adult I was taken with the midrashim (Jewish stories) about those first two lines, one relating to Jacob’s deathbed moment with his sons and the other involving a theft by Moses from the angelic realm.
The Shema may not be the most important prayer in our liturgy, but it is certainly amongst the contenders, and for many people it is the prayer which they always remember. Taken from the Torah, the first paragraph (less the second line – baruch shem kevod malchuto leolam va’ed) appears as part of this week’s portion. While we often focus on the words and meaning of the Shema it is interesting to look at it in its original context, outside of the service and in our Torah.
The Shema appears in a section which begins: ‘Now these are the commandments, statutes and judgments which Adonai your God commanded to teach you, that you might do them in the land to which you are going to possess’ (Deuteronomy 6:1). The concern has moved from life in the wilderness to life in the Promised Land. Before the Shema we are told to follow these commandments so that all will be well with us and we will increase mightily (Deuteronomy 6:3), and after it our presence in the land is once again emphasized.
When we think about the Promised Land in the context of the Torah it is specifically in relation to the Land of Israel, but on a symbolic level it represents a quest for a place of promise, aspiration and hope. In this way the Promised Land represents an idealized situation for which we strive rather than a specific geographic location, and in this regard the Shema may therefore be seen as a five-point blueprint for reaching the Promised Land.
The first requirement of the Shema is love of God, we need to be in a relationship with something greater than ourselves. This is then followed by the need for education, teaching the next generation, our children, is a central part of achieving a Promised Land. And no opportunity for education should ever be missed, when we’re sitting in our homes, walking on the streets, lying down or rising up – all of them are opportunities. Then these values must be taken and made a part of our very being bound to our heads as the place of thought and our arms as the place of action. Finally we need to make these values a part of the homes which we build, inscribing them on our doors and at our gates.
Seen in this light the Shema is not just a piece of Torah, not just a prayer in our liturgy, it is also an action plan for how we might achieve the Promised Land today.
And if you want to listen to this Two Minutes of Torah: