PARASHAT VAETCHANAN 5775
“Hear O Israel”
This shiur will focus on “parashat Shema.” What is the subject of this unit? And what spiritual process does it facilitate?
Hear, O Israel – Yahweh our Elohim, Yahweh is One.
And you shall love Yahweh your Elohim with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might… (Devarim 6:4-5)
The unit consists of two parts. The first, “Hear, O Israel,” is a call or appeal to the nation, the collective. The second – “you (in the singular) shall love…,” is addressed to the individual. The first is an affirmation and acknowledgment of Yahweh as Israel’s Elohim: “Yahweh our Elohim, Yahweh is One.” The second requires man to love Elohim and to internalize that love in his heart and his soul, having it fill his life all the way to the doorposts of his home and his gates.
“Hear” – the first step, invites a listening. In contrast to seeing, which perceives a physical object, reality, or form to which the seer is exposed, hearing addresses a sound and the meaning embodied in it. The introductory call to “hear” is an invitation to an inner, intimate experience.
Next comes the address of the appeal – “Israel.” This appellation, in the singular, serves to recognize and empower “Israel” as an autonomous entity, with an identity and an independent will. Following this empowerment of “Israel,” the text directs them to recognize Yahweh and His relevance in their lives: “Yahweh our Elohim, Yahweh is One.”
This structure has man as its point of departure – man’s orientation, man who is addressed by Yahweh. This is a fundamental structural characteristic of Sefer Devarim and a profound reflection of the story of this sefer. In Sefer Devarim, Moshe prepares the people in different ways for entry into the land. Upon entering the land, the focus will be on their activity and their perception of their new reality. The nation will act, produce, establish life systems. If they are worthy, Yahweh will come and cause His Presence to dwell in their midst.
“Yahweh our Elohim, Yahweh is One”
Now, in the wake of this focusing and orientation, Bnei Yisrael is exposed to the formula, “Yahweh our Elohim, Yahweh is One.” “Yahweh” – Y-H-V-H, the Name reserved for the Elohim of Israel. “Our Elohim” – not “Elohim,” but rather “Elo-heinu” (the possessive form), the Elohim Who is uniquely associated with Am Yisrael. This association takes different forms and expresses the fact that every individual and every society, in every generation, perceives Yahweh in a different way, and He also operates and reveals Himself in a different way for each, in accordance with human vessels. In our context, we might have expected the verse to read, “Hear O Israel, Yahweh your Elohim [in the singular], Yahweh is One,” where “your Elohim” means the One Elohim Who is associated with this one nation. The form in which it is actually written, “our Elohim,” brings into focus the individuals who comprise the nation and associates Elohim with these individuals. This multiplicity hints to the possibility that the differences between one person and another might create, heaven forefend, “many mighty’s.” The immediate answer to this is “Yahweh is One.” Indeed, there is multiplicity, but at its foundation there is unity. What creates and assures this unity? The answer to this would appear to be embedded in the language of the verse: the point of departure is an empowering of “Israel” as an autonomous entity, through its attribute of “hearing,” which empowers its existence. As a second stage, the nation is broken down into its constituent individuals, and, at the same time, attributed to Yahweh. In other words, each individual connects with Yahweh from his own place, in his own way. A single, unified nation of Israel also means that Yahweh is One.
Thus far, the proclamation has addressed the public sphere. Now, the continuation speaks of the individual and his love for Yahweh.
You shall love Yahweh your Elohim
You shall love Yahweh your Elohim with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And these things that I command you this day shall be upon your heart. And you shall teach them diligently to your children, and you shall speak of them when you dwell in your home, and when you walk on the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. And you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. And you shall inscribe them upon the doorposts of your home, and at your gates.
Before examining the precise exhortation, let us try to identify the “movement” indicated in this unit. The point of departure is the love of Yahweh that is generated in the depths of a person’s heart and psyche. It expands outwardly, step by step, to other areas of his life, towards the world around him. First there is a very strong love within the heart; this is conveyed to one’s children and is contemplated in one’s own mind; it is bound to his hand and between his eyes and is written on the doorposts of his home and on the gates of his courtyard or of the city. A great love is described in these verses, one that fills the chambers of the heart and expands to inform all of one’s life.
Let us now examine the unit verse by verse.
The entire unit is a command in the second person singular; it addresses each and every individual. “You shall love Yahweh” – the Divine Name embodies an unmediated, face-to-face encounter. “Your Elohim” – the word “elohim” is also used to refer to a mortal judge, who maintains the world’s firm footing in judgment. This appellation indicates authority within a system of justice that serves as a basis for human behavior, by setting yardsticks for good and bad, for what is permitted and what is forbidden. The Name “Elo-him” in reference to the Creator is thus interpreted as a reference to His setting down of the laws of Creation, justice, and all the concepts that form the basis for the existence of the world. What is the meaning of the concept of “your Elo-him” within this framework of personal connection – as though He were the personal Yahweh of the individual? The formulation suggests that every individual has a unique perspective, connection, and understanding of Yahweh that is different from that of every other person in the world. The invitation to love “Yahweh your Elohim,” with the personal association, is understood as an invitation to one’s inner world, to a love that is impossible when it involves Yahweh from the perspective of someone else.
“With all your heart” – at the very juncture of life, in the innermost place – the heart. Not “bekhol libekha” (“with all your lev”), but rather “bekhol levavekha” (with all your levav). Whereas “lev” refers to the physical organ or the elementary emotional aspect, the concept of “levav” points to more profound dimensions, “chambers of the heart,” that are part of the experience. To use Chazal’s terminology, “levav” encompasses both inclinations – the “good inclination” that seeks to serve Yahweh and the “evil inclination” that lurks with the recesses of the psyche. Thus, the call addresses even the darker side of the personality, inviting even the lower traits to be part of this love story.
“And with all your soul” – after the heart comes the soul, the psyche, with all its areas and dimensions. Following this comes “and with all your might (me’odekha).” The “me’od” suggests an amplification, where all the powers of the heart and soul are harnessed together in the love of Yahweh.
The next stage is, “These things which I command you this day shall be upon your heart.” Which “things” are referred to here? On the simplest level, the reference would seem to be to the command to love Yahweh, from the previous verse. Following the command to love with all one’s heart, one’s soul, and one’s might, a person is to take this entirety and place it “upon (or “over”) his heart.” This would seem to be speaking of a spiritual “place” that is “higher than” or “above” the heart, that transcends the juncture of life. Its higher plan gives it a position of supervision and influence over the workings of the heart.
“And you shall teach them diligently to your children” – what does this command mean? On the simplest level, the word “shinun” means repeating. We posit that the word had a different meaning in biblical times, and also as used by Chazal. We think of repetition as being meant to engrave something in a person’s memory; we think of it as entailing devoted adherence to something over and over again, without any change or innovation, until the matter is fixed in one’s mind.
However, the picture arising from the verses here is a very different one. The subject of the unit is love of Yahweh – man as he stands before Yahweh his Elohim. Prior to mention of the “shinun,” there is mention of placing of the consciousness of Yahweh upon the heart, and afterwards there is a depiction of man contemplating the love of Yahweh and speaking of it within himself in all life situations: when he dwells at home, and when he walks on the way, when he lies down and when he wakes. The father’s repetition to his son is yet another expression of his love of Yahweh, this time in the interpersonal sphere. The father, occupied at all times with his love of Yahweh, shares it with his son, thereby creating a sort of triangle in which the love of Yahweh is reflected in the space between the father and his son.
We may say further that the connection between father and son is one that is played out on the field of life, and this playing field determines the quality of the “repetition” that takes place in it. The parent-child bond contains within it a dimension of newness and change. Each day brings new facts and new insights, and this addition creates a perspective that brings the viewer to a new place in which reality is painted in new colors and imbued with new meaning.
We may now understand the nature of the repetition in a similar way. The repetition is an expression of man’s love of Yahweh with all his heart and all his soul. This love is a life movement, and as such it is not fixed. While the formula that is repeated is old and familiar, the repetition itself is not one of fixed, unchanging knowledge. The encounter is a living, internal one, and as such each repetition of it brings the person to vistas that he has not yet known, both in terms of the reality of the world and within himself, and thus facilitates a process of constant and endless newness and revelation.
We may summarize thus far and say that this unit commands the father to “repeat” the love of Yahweh to his son, and we now understand that the subject here is not commitment to the son, nor even commitment to any specific study content. The essence of this learning, this repetition, is the fact that it takes place. Its existence is a reflection of where the person stands vis-à-vis Yahweh. The commitment here is of the person towards his own inner essence, in a space that gives expression to three loves: the love of Yahweh, the love of the father, and the love of the son.
“And you shall speak of them”
“And you shall speak of them when you dwell in your home, and when you walk on the way, and when you lie down, and when you arise.” Continuing on from repetition with the son, which embodies an inner state of constant contemplation of the love of Yahweh, the person then goes on to speak of the love of Yahweh in different life situations: when he dwells at home – i.e., in his own personal space; when he walks on the way – i.e., in movement from one place to another; when he lies down – a time of turning inward, and when he rises up – a movement towards life and action. Each of these pairs describes a movement from the inside outward.
“And you shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes” – The love of Yahweh will henceforth be bound as a sign upon the person’s hand. The hand embodies the power to act, and it will henceforth be adorned with a sign, binding the love of Yahweh to it. “And as frontlets between your eyes” – not only a sign in the world of action, but also a sign “between your eyes.” A person looks at reality, and his gaze is accompanied by a sign that functions as a lens enabling him to perceive an additional, spiritual dimension.
“And you shall inscribe them upon the doorposts of your home, and at your gates” – the final location that the text notes as an expression of the love of Yahweh is the doorposts of the home and of the gate. The doorposts are part of the home, but also represent the point of contact between the inside and the outside. The gate, similarly, is the outermost limit of the “inside.” A person writes his love of Yahweh on that outermost boundary, too, thereby once again renewing and illuminating in a new light his inner love of Yahweh, which is projected outwards.
We began by asking what the subject of this unit is and what sort of spiritual process it facilitates in man. The unit basically has two subjects. The first verse is a call to hear and become aware and conscious of One Yahweh; the second verse is a command to love Him. Now we must ask, what is the relationship between these two parts? Let us first address the latter – the love of Yahweh. The place where this love happens is in a person’s heart. In addition, the expression “your Yahweh” indicates a subjective, uniquely personal dimension. A person can love his Elohim, but he cannot love the Elohim of someone else. The structure of the unit similarly testifies to something that takes place in a person’s individual consciousness, in the subjective dimension. It starts with the innermost position (“with all your heart”), and then moves outward, eventually reaching the doorposts of the home and the gates.
Now, let us imagine what the unit would look like if it started with the command, “You shall love,” without the first verse – “Hear, O Israel.” What effect would this have in the interpersonal sphere? How would it affect relations between the individual and the society in which he lives? The command would give a tremendous boost to an individualist existence in which the love of Yahweh burns within a person’s heart, but he pays no attention and attaches no importance to others and to the collective. The obvious outcome would be a world at whose center is the individual who loves Yahweh and serves Him – but he stands alone. This would open an abyss between one person and another; no one would understand anyone else.
In this sense, the first verse comes to lay a foundation. “Hear, O Israel” – the nation as a whole is invited to hear, with its inner attentiveness. This is followed by the declaration of all of Israel – “Yahweh [is] our Elohim” – and then a clarification: this Lord, to Whom the many individuals turn and refer, is One. These words represent the point of departure for the second part of the unit. They represent a broad, great anchor that speaks of a nation and of its Elohim before speaking of the individual and his Elohim. Only after the initial declaration is there license to move on to the additional sphere, with its profound and precious qualities.
The declaration of Shema is the story of Am Yisrael. It appeals to “Israel,” who are called upon to recognize Yahweh their Elohim, and this recognition sets down a reality in the world according to which Yahweh is the Elohim of Israel, and He is One. From here it moves on to the story of the individual, who recognizes and appreciates the significance of the love of Yahweh and the bond with Him, and accordingly makes this the foundation of his life.
The Sages of the Oral Law attach the concept of “acceptance of the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven” to this unit, viewing it in terms of commitment and obligation, a yoke. They also deduce from it the obligation to give up one’s life for the love of Yahweh, and the ultimate model in this regard is R. Akiva, who uttered this declaration as his flesh was being torn by iron combs. All of this is not exegesis of the text. It is the Sages’ reading of the verses. Their message to us is that this life is necessary; this is what gives life its stature and meaning. This is the call to the nation and to the individual, and whoever abandons it, abandons his life.