Friday, August 3, 2012

Parsha Vaetchanan: The Importance of Saying Shema

This week begins the Daf Yomi cycle, which is a seven-and-a-half year period in which Jews read one folio of Talmud a day. The first tractate, Tractate Berachot, begins with a discussion about saying the Shema (שמע), which consists of Deuteronomy 6:4-9, 11:13-21, and Numbers 15:37-41. Not only does the שמע begin the Talmud, but they are also ideally the last words a Jew is to utter in life, the שמע is a prayer to be recited twice a day, and the שמע is also written on tefillin scrolls. What makes this prayer so important that many Jews consider it to be one of the most important prayers? A look at the first paragraph of שמע (Deuteronomy 6:4-9), which happens to be in this week's Torah portion, provides some insight.

  1. Centrality of Jewish faith. "שמע ישראל יהוה אלוהינו יהוה אחד." Hear 'O Israel, G-d is our L-rd, G-d is one. These first words of the שמע in Deuteronomy 6:4 are key. The first implication is that G-d exists. In addition to G-d's existence, this verse is monotheistic in nature. There are not multiple deities (polytheism) or a triune deity (Christianity); G-d is Infinite Oneness, even if we perceive Him in multiple ways. There aren't two battling forces of good and evil like that of Zoroastrianism, and we don't pray to multiple, competing idols. G-d is the Ultimate Source. In the Torah scroll, the ע in the word שמע and the ד in the word אחד. If you put the letters together, you get the word עד, which means "witness." The Jews are meant to be witnesses to this concept
  2. Loving G-d. The following verse says that you shall "love G-d with all your heart, all your soul, and all your might." Rabbi Isaac ben Moses Amara asked an important question because it brings up a good point: how can you command an emotion? After all, emotions can be volatile and thus more difficult to control. Also, looking at the Talmud (Berachot 54a, 61b) provides insight of what Deuteronomy 6:5 means. In the mishna, it says that "with all your heart" is in reference to both the good and evil inclinations. "All your might" indicates money, since money is referred to in the Bible as might. Alternatively, it can mean that with every measure that He metes out to you, you still thank Him. Finally, "all your soul" denotes "even if your soul is to be taken from this life," which is why the Gemara subsequently tells the story of Rabbi Akiva's untimely death. With these factors in mind, it is why Judaism is heavily focused on the deeds of an individual, and this verse is no exception. The answer of the Sfat Emet, a Chassidic rabbi of the late nineteenth/early twentieth century, was that in order to truly show love to G-d, his actions must speak louder than words, beliefs, or what ever transient emotions might exist at a given time. In our actions, we are supposed to "give it our all," and the focal point is G-d (פונה). 
  3. Torah and its Transmission. The Torah has been likened to water. In a spiritual sense, the Jewish soul is quenched much like water quenches thirst, which is why we speak of the Torah "when we sit it in our homes and on our way (Deuteronomy 6:7)," i.e., Torah study is very important. What's more is that we are to transmit Torah to the next generation (ibid). Although the literal meaning of לבניך is "your sons" or "your children," the Rashi cites the Sifrei in saying that the term can also refer to one's students [regardless of age]. As previously mentioned, our actions have to line up with our words. "Do as I say, not as I do" is not a Jewish value. Merely telling children or students to do something while the teacher or parent does the opposite isn't a good teaching tool. Only by doing what we teach can provide lessons truly learned. The ability to transmit the Torah as such is one of the essentials that has kept Judaism alive for all these years. 
  4. Mezuzah and Tefillin. Aside from being d'oraita rituals that involve scrolls mentioned in this passage (verses 8 and 9), it's hard to see a more spiritual commonality. In his book "Between G-d and Man," R. Abraham Joshua Heschel talks about why we need to recite prayer three times a day, and more pertinently, why we need to recite שמע twice a day. "A scientific theory," he says (p. 43), "once it is announced and accepted, does not have to be repeated twice a day. The insights of wonder must be constantly kept alive. Since there is a need for daily wonder, there is a need for daily worship." What Heschel is pointing out is that we are spiritually fragile creatures. Our ability to remember and internalize that wonder can be rather short-term. We need that reaffirmation constantly. That is why ever time one passes through a doorpost, one kisses the mezuzah. That is why when Jewish men put on tefillin, they not only literally bind themselves, but metaphorically bind themselves to G-d as a reminder of what we are here to do.
This brief passage covers many facets. G-d being Infinite Oneness is not so much a belief as it is a given in Judaism, and based on the more philosophical implications thereof, Jews live their lives accordingly. The actions of a Jew are supposed to not only show the love for G-d, but the willingness to show that constantly and have it be strong enough to make sure that it endures. The שמע also keeps our human fragility in mind because G-d has provided the Jews with ways to remember their mission in life. The שמע, in short, is a condensed statement of what it means to be a Jew.

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