For the week of August 12, 2000 / 11 Av 5760
Torah: Devarim / Deuteronomy 3:23 - 7:11
Haftarah: Isaiah 40:1-26

The Shema

Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one (Devarim / Deuteronomy 6:4).

Throughout the centuries the creed of Judaism has been the Shema: "Sh'ma yisrael, adonai eleheinu, adonai echad - Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one" (Devarim / Deuteronomy 6:4). Every day religious Jews faithfully chant these words. But what do these words mean? Are we aware of what we are actually saying?

These words were given to the generation that was to enter the Promised Land. The book of Devarim (English: Deuteronomy) recounts the events of their departure from Egypt and goes over the commands that God had given them. Moses urged the people to remember these things, so that their lives would go well in the days and years ahead. And not just theirs only , but also those of their descendants after them.

But centuries later the Shema took on a meaning and an emphasis that I do not think was originally intended. The declaration, "The LORD is one!" became a symbol of defiance against assimilatory forces in Christian Europe. These words began to mean that God was a singular unity and were proclaimed as the Torah's defense against the Trinitarian view of the Christians. In the face of persecution and death, these words represented faithfulness to our ancient religion.

But that is not what the Shema is declaring at all. Moses is not making a statement about the nature of God. He is reminding the people that their God is the only God. That is why he goes on to say, "Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength" (6:5). They were to leave no room in their lives for the gods of the nations around them - the very thing that they eventually did.

This is the week of Tisha b'Av (see TorahBytes installment, From Sorrow to Joy, written a couple of years ago), which commemorates some of the greatest tragedies of our people, including the destruction of both the first and second temples. The Torah makes it clear that the reason for these tragedies was our unfaithfulness to God.

For many Jewish people resisting Christianity is what the Shema is all about. Against every kind of pressure our people have kept true to their understanding of our ancient faith. We have viewed Christianity no differently than any other pagan religion.

But to chant the Shema in defiance to Christianity reveals a profound misunderstanding.

This is especially true because Christians themselves are supposed to believe the Shema, since they claim to lay hold of the teachings of the Torah. While Gentile Christians are not obligated to do many of the things God intended particularly for Israel, their understanding of God is derived from no other place.

And so the words of the Shema are directed at all people who put their trust in the God of Israel.

These words call us all to obey God alone. They call us all to heed no one but him. In a world that seeks to grab our attention and demand our adherence, the Shema tells us there is only one God.

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