HMS; 5764-13 Prayer I: The Shema

Lessons in Memory of my brother Dale Alan Konigsburg

January 6, 2004 – Number 5764-13

This lesson is in honor of my nephew Zachary Shivers who celebrated his attaining the age of Bar Mitzvah on the First day of January, 2004

Prayer I: The Shema

The Shema has been compared to the American Pledge of Allegiance. It is the basic declaration of faith that a Jew says twice every day. It is the first prayer a child is taught, it is the last prayer recited before we die. We say it each day before we go to sleep and it is one of the central points in the Shacharit service. Everyone knows the Shema, but few understand its deeper meanings.
The Shema consists only of verses from the Torah. The first passage is from Deuteronomy chapter 6. The second passage is from Deuteronomy chapter 11 and the third from Numbers chapter 15. One of the first indications that there is more to these passages than meets the eye is that they are out of order. According to the order of the Torah, the last passage should be first. That they are out of order tells us that there must be an important reason for being in this order, otherwise why change the order of the Torah?
The first passage is very difficult to understand without a hint. The extra verse that we recite silently (Praise His glorious sovereignty throughout all time) hints to us about the theme. The Sages call this passage “OI Malchut Shamayim” or “Taking upon ourselves the yoke of Heaven” The theme is to love G-d, with all our heart, soul and might. Notice that we are being commanded to love! How is this possible? Can anyone command us to love? In fact, just as we love our parents without having a choice in the matter, so too we must love G-d, our Creator. Therefore the theme of this passage is Creation.
The second passage seems to be about reward and punishment. We are rewarded for obeying G-d and punished for disobedience. It is easy to get distracted here when we notice that the punishment for individual disobedience is communal punishment. One person sins and everyone suffers famine and drought. For now let us call this an ecological statement. If one person pollutes the water, ground or sky, we all suffer the effects. The real theme of this passage is found in the first sentence. It talks about “the commandments I give you this day” Which day is that? The day the commandments were given at Sinai. The sages call this passage, “Ol Mitzvot” or “Accepting the yoke of the Commandments” We see that the theme of this passage is Revelation.
The third passage deals with our debt to G-d for saving us from slavery in Egypt. We wear the thread of blue in the corner of our garments to remember the commandments. We follow these Mitzvot because we owe G-d for taking us from slavery to freedom. This passage is easy, it is clearly about Redemption.
This triad of creation, revelation and redemption leads to another triad. Creation is about G-d creating the world. Revelation is about G-d revealing the law to Humanity and Redemption, in Jewish Theology is about Humanity completing the unfinished world. The triad of G-d, Humanity and the world, is superimposed upon the triad of Creation, Revelation and Redemption. It looks like a Star of David:
We can see now why the Shema is such an important prayer. It is more than just a pledge to G-d, is encapsulates the very foundation of Jewish Theology! The Shema is encased in three blessings, two before the Shema and one after. These blessings also stress Creation, Revelation and Redemption. When we recite the Shema and her blessings we affirm that we are the people who believe in the relationship between G-d, Humanity and the world. We hold as fundamental the theology of Creation, Revelation and Redemption.

Next week: Prayer II: The Amida

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