“Why the Sh’ma?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This past Shabbat is known as “Shabbat Chazon.” Its name derives from the opening words of the Haftorah (the prophetic message) of Isaiah, predicting the calamity of destruction. This coming week, we continue observing the balance of the “nine days” of national mourning that precede the Fast of the 9th of Av. The fast itself, which marks the day that the Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed, is observed on Wednesday night and Thursday, August 6th and 7th, 2003. Having focused on the Temples’ destruction in the past, I’d like to share some insights on this week’s parasha, parashat Va’etchanan.

In parashat Va’etchanan, we encounter (Chapter 6:4-9) one of the central prayers of Jewish life–the Sh’ma–the famed declaration of Jewish faith: “Hear O’ Israel, the L-rd is our G-d, the L-rd is one.”

There are four, possibly five, mitzvot mentioned in the first paragraph of the Sh’ma prayer: 1) Tefillin–the black leather boxes that are strapped to the hand and head as a sign of giving over one’s strength, one’s heart and one’s mind to G-d, 2) Mezuzah—the amulet affixed to the doorpost of the Jewish home, confirming G-d’s presence in the house, 3) teaching one’s children Torah, 4) reciting the Sh’ma prayer morning and evening, and 5) the mitzvah of loving G-d with all one’s heart, one’s soul and one’s might.

This final mitzvah is the subject of controversy due to the fact that, according to the Jewish understanding, G-d can do everything, except make a person believe in Him, because that would constitute coercion, not belief. Some authorities say that although belief in G-d may indeed be a formal mitzvah, the human being is still left with free choice. Others say that “loving G-d” is a statement, not a commandment.

In any case, all agree that the Sh’ma prayer is the central statement of belief of the Jewish people, affirming the dominion of G-d in our lives. In fact, the rabbis refer to the Sh’ma as the prayer in which Jews accept upon themselves “Ohl malchut sha’mayim” “the yoke of Heaven.”

This terminology, “yoke of Heaven,” is quite intimidating and seemingly overbearing. However, when we explore the terminology, we discover an intriguing insight. When an animal, such as an ox, is tethered to a plow without a yoke, the harder the animal pulls the more it hurts the animal. In fact, the animal might even choke itself to death! The yoke, for all its weight and discomfort, is in effect, a liberating device, allowing the animal to accomplish far more than it normally could without the yoke. So too, the “Yoke of Heaven” is liberating, allowing the human being to follow a divinely inspired lifestyle and make moral decisions, despite the numerous blandishments to do otherwise.

But if the Sh’ma prayer is indeed the statement in which we accept upon ourselves the dominion of G-d, then should not the opening line of the Sh’ma read “and you shall believe in the L-rd your G-d with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might”? Why does it read instead and you shall “love” the L-rd your G-d?

The philosophers explain that “love” has the capacity to reveal truths that are otherwise hidden. For instance, to the untrained musical ear, the voice of a famous opera singer may sound like a fat man making unpleasant bellowing sounds. To the opera buff however, every note is transformational, every trill sends shivers up and down the afficionado’s spine. The opera buff may even be able to compare the singer’s rendition of Aida with an obscure recording of a performance in Milan, Italy, from the early 1920s. In other words, love opens vistas that may otherwise be obscured. An unusual nose, or a space between a person’s teeth, may be quite a turn-off to some, but a source of a great attraction and beauty to one who is in love. That is why it is said, “Love is blind.”

Love is perhaps the most efficacious avenue to belief. That is most likely the reason why the Kotzker Rebbe once responded to the question “Where do we find G-d?” by saying “Wherever you allow Him to enter!”

By opening our hearts to love and allowing G-d to enter, we enable ourselves to see things about G-d that others, who have more casual attitudes, could never perceive or appreciate. No wonder the Sh’ma prayer is usually one of the first utterances on our lips in the morning, and one of the last things we pronounce before going to sleep, and before we depart from this world.

Have a meaningful Tisha b’Av.

May you be blessed.