Vaetchanan 2021: The Blessing of the Shema

The Shema is more than just 6 words - it is an entire anthology of sacred Jewish wisdom that guides us to experience the core of Judaism. How can its sacred guidance enlighten us today?

The Mishna, a collection of Jewish wisdom compiled in the 2nd century CE in the Galilee, is the foundational text of Judaism. Tractate B’rachot, or Blessings, is the first tractate of the Mishna, and begins with these words: 

מֵאֵימָתַי קוֹרִין אֶת שְׁמַע בְּעַרְבִית 
At what time do we read the Shema in the evening? 

So begins the endless debate about Jewish practice, peppered with disagreement, assent, illustrative stories, and non-sequitors. But in peeling back these layers, we begin to see something erupting through the conversation: By asking what time one recites it, multiple assumptions are made about the reader: Before encountering the text they already know they must recite the Shema in the evening; they already know what the word “Shema” refers to.

This isn’t the stuff of religion - not really. This is the stuff of deep culture. Of a holistic way of being in the world that had already begun to unfold well before the time of the discussion, one that was responding not only to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, but the prior century of distrust in the Temple power structure, and a development of rabbinic practice that centered the individual Jew as opposed to the Priestly class. 

We see this in the way the rabbis decide when the Shema is recited - at the same time that the Priests of the Temple would offer a certain evening sacrifice, creating a parallel structure which encodes the sacredness of time, and the history of Temple practice, while simultaneously overcoming it and putting the power of connection to the Divine in the hands of the individual who recites the Shema. This then places the Shema as a conduit between us and the Divine.

The Shema isn’t only the 12 famous words that make up the middle of its recitation, but includes multiple blessings that help to orient us towards the meaning of those twelve words, and the following texts which help us to know how to enact those twelve words. After the call to prayer, we begin with “Yotzer Or.” This blessing celebrates the universality of the Divine in Jewish consciousness - it focuses on the way we see God the Creator in the entire world around us, and that therefore every aspect of our world itself is Divine.  Its evening parallel is “Ma’ariv Aravim.”

The blessings continue with Ahavah Rabbah in the morning and Ahavat Olam in the evening. Both focus on the particular Jewish connection to the Divine, in contrast to the previous blessing’s universality. Ahavah, the core message of these two blessings, means love. Yes, love is central to Judaism. But these blessings describe how God shows love specifically to us, the Jewish people, and that is through Torah - through Divine Wisdom that provides us knowledge and instruction  towards how to behave in the world in our own, particular Jewish way.

The first six words of the next piece, Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad, Hear O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is One, are what most people think of when they hear the word “Shema.”  They come from this week’s Torah portion, and therefore the previous blessing about God showing love to us through Torah means that the truth in this phrase is a key piece of that love. The next six words, Baruch Shem Kavod Malchuto l’Olam Va’Ed, are difficult to translate, and our rabbinic ancestors told us we should not say them aloud, but rather surreptitiously, as they are not in the Torah itself. In short, the oneness of declared God here helps us encounter the love of God everywhere, and to see ourselves as part of that unity.

We then move onto what is commonly referred to as the V’ahavtah, which is also in this week’s Torah portion. Another tract of scripture mythopoetically from the hand of Moses, it reflects God’s ahavah of the second blessing back. It tells us that just as God shows us love through the Torah, we show God love through participating in the Torah, and by allowing that love channelled through the minds, mouths, and hands of our ancestors to direct our behavior in the world affirming Divine unity. It goes on to tell us that if we do this well, we will prosper, and if we do not, we will suffer, then closes with a reminder that we must not lust after ideologies that will steer our hearts away from the love of Torah, and that our love for God will lead to our liberation, just as it did for our ancestors out of Egypt. 

The entire service rubric ends with Mi Camocha, a segment of the Torah recounting the celebration after the parting of the Red Sea. On a deeper level, this prayer reminds us that we, from our limited human perspective, do not know what liberation might look like. The Israelites did not know how they were going to cross the Red Sea as the Egyptian military bore down on them - not even Moses did -  yet in their moment of need, a completely unexpected form of liberation occurred: The miracle of the Red Sea parting. 

Mi Camocha reminds us that we can not fully understand the connection between each of these expressions of the Divine Unity in the world, but that when we heed the call of the Shema and its Blessings, we may experience it ourselves. The Shema and its Blessings, an anthology of blessings and tracts of Torah compiled by our rabbinic ancestors, reveals the core of Judaism. The ancient rabbis saw recitation of the Shema as a core principle of what it meant to be a responsible, wise Jew; Providing us a window into the Divinity in Creation, God’s love through the Torah, God’s unique Oneness leading us to show love for God through enacting Torah, which will, in the end, lead to our liberation in ways we may least expect.  

This may sound like a sales pitch, but I’m not here to try to convince you to recite this ancient Hebrew twice daily. We are living in a time of drastic change, just as drastic, if not more, than the time that led to the ancient rabbis reforming the Temple cult into prayer practice. So we, too, can reform the traditional mode into something that meets more of our needs today.

One way to do this is to carve out the time to engage with the themes of these blessings and prayers during your morning and your evening. You could begin and end your day by looking out your window, and finding something to marvel at that evokes the feeling of Divine presence in the world. Then, think about where you have found, in your life, the Divine presence in guidance, or Torah, you have received - perhaps from a book, perhaps from a family member, perhaps even from a rabbi! Perhaps even the ancient text of the Shema and the V’ahavtah. Then sit with that piece of guidance, and listen. Listen to where it resonates in your life today, listen to where it leads you to express and enact acts of love in your life. Then do it. 

When you are sitting in your house, or when you are going on your way, embody that love of the guidance you have received, and reflect it back. And in this way, through listening, and acting, may you, may we all, experience the surprise of unexpected liberation. Shabbat Shalom.