Deuteronomy 6:4-9 is a passage that finds a central place in Jewish liturgy. The first verse constitutes a Jewish credal statement, known in Hebrew as the Shema (‘Listen’ or ‘Hear’). The Shema permeates the lives of observant Jews and is central to morning and evening prayer services.
Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone (Deut. 6:4, NRSV).
Listen, Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is one (Deut. 6:4, see Friedman).
Read both these translations a few times, aloud, slowly. How does God’s Word speak to your heart in an initial reading? Share your thoughts with a friend.
The Book of Deuteronomy is presented as a series of speeches by Moses, just prior to his death, as he looks back and tells the story of the Israelites’ epic trek through the desert. These events are over. The Israelites are about to enter the promised land. The past lies behind them. All that remains now is the memory of those desert events, and their meaning. All that remains are the words that remind them of the wilderness story and the commandments to be fulfilled. And so, says Moses, ‘Listen…’ Can we sense the drama of this moment, the power of this word, and all that hinges on it?
The Hebrew language allows for the latter part of v.4 to be translated as either "The Lord alone" or "The Lord is one." Thus, two key emphases emerge: Israel’s sole worship of God and the oneness of God.
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart” (6:5). Commentators note that, reflecting the language of ancient political treaties, the verb ‘to love’ implies not just an emotion but the commitment of one’s actions. To love God calls for total loyalty and dedication.
"Which commandment is the first of all?” asks a scribe in Mark’s Gospel. Jesus answers by quoting the Shema: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one...” (Mark 12:29). Where else do we find echoes of the Shema in the New Testament?
Can we hear, for instance, soundings of the Shema in the voice of the apostle Paul: “Yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist...” (1 Cor. 8:6). As Christians, our faith is built on a foundational belief in God’s unchallenged sovereignty over, and loving care for, all creation. And where is that foundation laid? In the faith of the Jewish people, summed up in the Shema.
During World War II, hundreds of Jewish parents placed their infant children, for their own safety, into the care of non-Jewish families or Christian monasteries. After the War, a concern for the Jewish community was to locate its ‘lost’ Jewish child-survivors, many now living in church-run institutions and too young to remember their Jewish upbringing. The story is told of one Rabbi who, with the support of a Polish Catholic orphanage, greeted the children, then recited the words of the Shema, upon which a number of the children began to weep, and to cry out ‘Mama!’ ‘These children are Jewish,’ said the Rabbi, knowing that among the precious words they had heard from their parents’ lips, before the moment of separation, was the Shema.
Shema! ‘Listen!’ Discuss the centrality of listening in a life of prayer, of faith, of family, of love.
“You shall love the Lord your God...” The sages of Israel wrestled with the question: if the Shema is a commandment, how is it possible to ‘command’ love? Should not one’s love of God be marked by spontaneity? How would you enter this discussion? Note that in the context of Jewish liturgy the Shema is preceded by a declaration of God’s love.
Bibliography: Eskenazi & Weiss, The Torah: A Women’s Commentary (New York, 2008); Friedman, Commentary on the Torah (San Francisco, 2003); www.jewishencyclopedia.com; www.aish.com. Scripture: NRSV (unless indicated otherwise).
© Teresa Pirola, 2012. lightoftorah.net. Reproduction for non-commercial use permitted with acknowledgement of website.
Light of Torah is a grassroots ministry based in the Catholic community in Australia, encouraging Christians to reflect on the Hebrew Scriptures with the help of Jewish insights. More... The reflection above refers to Parashat Va-et'chanan (Deuteronomy 3:23 - 7:11), the Torah portion read for this Sabbath in the Jewish liturgical cycle). Shabbat shalom!
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