“Why the Sh’ma?”
(updated and revised from Va’etchanan 5763-2003)

by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Va’etchanan, we encounter, in Deuteronomy 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, prominent mitzvot that are found 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, containing two selections from the Torah, that is affixed to the doorposts 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 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 many Jewish philosophers and theologians, 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 by which Jews affirm the dominion of G-d in their lives. In fact, the rabbis refer to the Sh’ma as the prayer in which Jews accept upon themselves עֹל מַלְכוּת שָׁמַיִם, “the yoke of Heaven.”

This terminology, “yoke of Heaven,” is rather intimidating and appears even menacing. However, upon further exploration of 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 itself. 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 Jews accept upon themselves 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” is a most powerful emotion. Love has the ability to reveal truths that are otherwise hidden. For instance, to the untrained musical ear, the voice of a renowned opera singer may sound like a large man making unpleasant bellowing sounds. To the opera aficionado however, every note is transformational, every trill sends shivers up and down the opera-devotee’s spine. A committed opera buff may even be able to compare the singer’s current 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. A slightly misshapen 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 often said, “Love is blind.”

Love, in fact, 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 we allow Him to enter!”

By opening our hearts to love G-d and allowing Him to enter, we enable ourselves to see and appreciate things about G-d that others, who have more casual attitudes, would 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 words pronounced before going to sleep, and before we depart from this world.

May you be blessed.