Moses looks at the Promised Land by the banks of the river Jordan, and continues his final speech to the Israelites before he dies. He pleads with God to allow him to enter the Land of Israel, but he is refused. Once again Moses stresses to the Israelites the importance of keeping God’s commandments when they enter the land of Israel, repeating the “Ten Commandments” and uttering the Shema and Ve-ahavta. Finally, Moses informs the Israelites that they are God’s chosen and treasured people who will be loved by God if they remain loyal to God’s covenant.
The Shema may not be the most important prayer in our liturgy, but it is certainly one of the contenders, and for many people it is the prayer which they always remember. Taken from the Torah, the first paragraph (less the second line – baruch shem kevod malchuto leolam va’ed) appears as part of this week’s portion. While we often focus on the words and meaning of the Shema, it is interesting to look at it in its original context in our Torah and outside of the service.
There it appears in relation to the Promised Land, and “our” well-being in the land, after we have entered it. But on a symbolic level it represents a quest for a place of promise, aspiration and hope. In this way the Promised Land represents an idealised situation for which we strive rather than a specific geographic location, and in this regard the Shema may therefore be seen as a five-point blueprint for reaching the Promised Land.
The first requirement of the Shema is to love God, we need to be in a relationship with something greater than ourselves. This is then followed by the need for education, teaching the next generation, our children. And no opportunity for education should ever be missed; when we’re sitting in our homes, walking on the streets, lying down or rising up – all of these are opportunities. Then these values must be taken and made a part of our very being, bound to our heads as the place of thought and our arms as the place of action. Finally we need to make these values a part of the homes which we build, inscribing them on our doors and at our gates.
Seen in this light the Shema is not just a piece of Torah, not just a prayer in our liturgy. It is also an action plan for how we might achieve the Promised Land today.
Wishing you all a wonderful Shabbat, and to those attending Limmud a great weekend of learning.
– Rabbi Adrian M Schell (based on a text by Rabbi Danny Burkeman)