The Rabbi stands with a group of Nuns at the end of a long hallway. He has been given an enormous task; a search through the orphanages of war torn Europe, in order to locate Jewish children smuggled and hidden away from the horrors of the Nazi occupation. The young children in this Lithuanian orphanage come from many different religious and ethnic groups, most are too young to even remember the circumstances that brought them here. How would the Rabbi be able to recognize the Jewish children from all the others? He walks between the rows of bunks, and drags a stool to the center of the hall. Standing on the stool, he covers his eyes with his right hand and begins to sing a song that starts with a proclamation, “Shema Yisrael!” A little voice joins in with the Rabbi’s, haltingly at first, “A-do-nai El-o-he-nu.” Then more voices from around the room, “A-do-nai e-chad.” In the wake of one of the most horrible atrocities in history, an attempt to rid the world of the Jewish people; a Rabbi joins with a group of orphans in singing the most important prayer in all of Jewish liturgy, the Shema.
——Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.-Deuteronomy 6:4-9
The Shema is at once a prayer, a command, and a proclamation. It lies at the very heart of what it means to be Jewish. An observant Jew will recite the Shema every morning and every night, at every Shabbat service and feast day celebration. A Jewish mother will sing her baby to sleep with the words of the Shema. It is the first prayer a child learns when they are old enough to speak, and a Jewish man will strive to make the words of the Shema the last thing he utters on his deathbed. Shema Yisrael! Adonai elohenu, Adonai echad: Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
As followers of Jesus, we must also recognize the Shema as the foundational statement of our faith. “The Lord is one” is not merely an acknowledgement of monotheism, but is also translated as: “The Lord alone is God.” We honor God and his commandments by placing him first in everything we do. We should understand that anything we prioritize over God, whether work, family, fun, or finances; becomes another god, thus violating the Shema’s opening proclamation. We obey the command of the Shema by making God alone the central authority in our lives, by loving him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.
The Pharisees and teachers of the law referred to Jesus as “Rabbi,” they would have expected Jesus to answer their questions in a very Jewish way. He rarely disappointed them, even during some of their more heated exchanges. When posed a question about the greatest commandment, Jesus answered in a most thoroughly Jewish way, by reciting the Shema.
——One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ -Mark 12:28-30
Orthodox Jewish men take every word of the Shema very seriously. Like the Torah observant Pharisees and teachers of Jesus’ day, an observant Jew takes the command of, “Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads,” quite literally. A Phylactery is a small leather box that an observant Jew will tie to his arm and forehead during morning and evening prayer. Inside the box…..you got it, a tiny hand written copy of the Shema. If we become too caught up in this literal interpretation of the commands, however, we may end up missing the point. We tie the Shema to our hands when we remember to honor God with our every action, and we bind the Shema on our foreheads when we place God first in our thoughts. This idea of action over symbolism is reflected in Jesus’ teachings;
——Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. “Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long- Matthew 23:1-5
For Christians, I compare this teaching to the cross on a necklace chain. The most ornate golden cross can never replace the message of the true cross, planted in our hearts and minds, and reflected in our actions. Our faith is not a fashion statement, but a way of life. We should teach this way of life to our children, we should bear witness at home or out in the community, when we lie down and when we wake up. When the first sentence of the Shema is written in the Siddur in Hebrew, the two letters, Ayin (ע) and Dalet (ד), are printed larger than the others, the two letters form the Hebrew word meaning “to witness.”
Unfortunately, Jewish people will often use the Shema to refute our belief in the divinity of Jesus. The Idea of the Trinity is, for most Jews, a belief in polytheism, and contrary to the Shema’s declaration, “the Lord is one.” I would point out some interesting facts, however, that cause me to take a different view. The Hebrew word “echad,” which is translated as “one” in the Shema, is the same word used in Genesis 2:24 to refer to a married couple becoming “one flesh.” This Hebrew word “echad” refers to a plurality in unison, the same way that many people can sing together in “one” voice. The Shema uses “echad,” the plural form of one, instead of “yachid,” the indivisible form of one. It is not uncommon in Hebrew to refer to God in the plural, which is why we sometimes run into translation issues in places such as Genesis 1:26, where our English Bible reads; “Then God said,’Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness…” The Hebrew term “Adonai” is also the plural form of Lord. The plural term “Elohim,” used by Jewish scribes to refer to God has two singular forms in “Eloah,” and “Elohiayim.” That’s right, referring to God as a plurality in unity is not a New Testament idea, though I’m sure most of the Rabbis would beg to differ.
So may I suggest a contemplation of the Shema, a message from God to his people. If Jesus considered the Shema to be the greatest commandment; all of his followers, both Jew and Gentile, should consider it the foundational statement of our relationship to our God. Our God alone is Lord of all. We acknowledge his sovereignty by loving him with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength. We should teach our children of his greatness. We should be witnesses of his goodness at home and on the road. We should honor him with the work of our hands and the thoughts in our minds. At the heart of this ancient Jewish prayer, lies the essence of what it means to be a follower of Christ.