The First and Second Shema

Jewish_men_praying2The most obvious difference between the two sections is that the first simply instructs the Jew to pursue his or her relationship with G‑d, without promising reward or threatening punishment. The second section, while enjoining us to do the very same things as the first, informs us of the benefits of doing so (“I will give the rain of your land in its due season . . . and you shall eat and be sated”; “In order that your days be multiplied . . . upon the land”) and warns us of the consequences of transgression (“He will stop up the heavens”; “You will soon perish from the good land”). Other than that, however, the second section seems a repetition of the first, with only minor differences in wording and syntax.

Rashi, in his commentary on these verses, cites several further examples of how the second section introduces a concept or injunction not included in the first.

In the second section, the commandment to love G‑d is given in the plural (“with all your hearts and with all your souls”) rather than the singular (“with all your heart, with all your soul”) employed by the first section. The first section, explains Rashi, is an injunction to the individual, while the second is an injunction to the community. (This difference is repeated throughout the two sections. The Hebrew language distinguishes between second-person singular and second-person plural, as Old English does with “thou” and “you.” The entire first section speaks in second-person singular, the second section in second-person plural.)

-Rabbi Yanki Tauber
“The Second Chapter of the Shema”
Based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson
Chabad.org

According to this commentary, a Jew is obligated to recite the Shema each morning and each evening of his life. Accepting that, why am I writing about the Shema? For that matter, as a Christian, why am I writing about the Torah and Judaism? Derek Leman recently wrote a blog post emphasizing lengthy and careful Torah study for Christians which I also commented upon. Nothing in the Bible is irrelevant, although some portions cannot be acted upon today by any Jewish person (or anyone else) and some portions can only be acted upon by Jewish people.

I’m also interested in the Torah pursuant to my desire to answer my Pastor’s question what is the purpose of the Torah, especially for Messianic Jews?

Reading Rabbi Tauber’s commentary, I was provided with a few clues about the application of the Shema and thus the Torah in the lives of observant Jewish people.

This isn’t going to be a scientific or academic response. I lack the educational “chops” for such an analysis and frankly, as I write this, I’m pretty tired, not having gotten enough sleep last night. My brain is foggy. Don’t expect a lot. I suppose I should delay in writing this, but the drive inside me has other ideas.

Rabbi Tauber lists many different ways to interpret the first and second sections of the Shema, but I want to focus on the emphasis between the text being directed at the individual Jewish person vs. the Jewish community.

Jewish individual vs. community devotion to God and observance of the mitzvot is a unique concept. Christianity doesn’t really have such a viewpoint. Oh sure, there’s the concept of what we do as individual Christians as opposed to Christian community activity, but it just doesn’t “feel” the same. Christianity doesn’t convey the same cohesive identity that Judaism does. Further, we don’t have a focused set of commandments that delineate the duties of individuals in the church in contrast to the body of believers as a whole.

According to Rabbi Tauber, there is such a thing for Jews and Judaism.

The most obvious difference between the two sections is that the first simply instructs the Jew to pursue his or her relationship with G‑d, without promising reward or threatening punishment.

The directive to the individual Jewish person relative to the Shema and the Torah is an instruction to pursue a relationship with God. Period. No mention of punishments or rewards. Is that supposed to tell us something about how God responds to the virtues or the failures of an individual Jewish person? Maybe not, but keep that in mind.

The second section, while enjoining us to do the very same things as the first, informs us of the benefits of doing so (“I will give the rain of your land in its due season . . . and you shall eat and be sated”; “In order that your days be multiplied . . . upon the land”) and warns us of the consequences of transgression (“He will stop up the heavens”; “You will soon perish from the good land”).

ancient_jerusalemThe second section seems to say more or less the same as the first except that it’s directed at the community of Israel as a whole and that it includes rewards and punishments for obedience or failure to obey (for length, I’m not quoting everything from the article that supports my points, so you’ll need to read the source to “fill in the blanks”).

The story of the Bible does mention individual Jewish people such as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and so on, but the grand, overarching epic is really the story of collective Israel. It’s Israel that is blessed by God, or Israel that is sent into exile. Solomon builds the Temple for Israel, or the Temple is destroyed to punish Israel. Individuals play their parts and individuals are blessed or suffer, but it’s really the consequences to the nation, for good or for ill, that are at stake.

Why?

In the second section, the commandments to don tefillin, study and teach Torah and affix mezuzot immediately follow the warning that “you will swiftly perish from the good land that G‑d is giving you.” This, says Rashi (citing Sifri), is to teach us that also after you are exiled, you must distinguish yourselves with the mitzvot: put on tefillin, make mezuzot, so that these not be new to you when you return.

Taken on its own, the first section implies a connection to G‑d only through the Torah and its mitzvot as observed in the Holy Land. We need the second section to tell that all this is equally applicable in exile.

The first section describes a relationship whose relevance we can assume only under conditions of closeness to G‑d: when we dwell secure in the land that “G‑d’s eyes are constantly upon,” and when He manifests His presence amongst us in His holy home in Jerusalem. But when He hides His face from us and banishes us like children exiled from their father’s table, our ability to love Him, to comprehend His truth and to implement His will can be questioned. Indeed, we cannot even assume that these precepts are meant to apply to such conditions of spiritual darkness.

Not so the second section. Because the relationship is one of our making, because it stems from within, it becomes ingrained in our very essence. Integrally us, it persists wherever and whenever we persist.

There seems to be differences in application between the first and second section of the Shema based on whether or not Israel, collective Israel, is in exile. To be sure, there is no collective Israel if there isn’t a response from the many, many individual Jewish people, but it’s Israel in exile. Some individual Jews have it better and some worse in the diaspora. Look at the differences in life for Jews in America vs. in the Arab nations or some European countries.

My Pastor lived in Israel for fifteen years and in his experience, when Jews made aliyah, they had one or two responses: either they became more religious or they stopped being religious completely. In Israel, as a Jew, you don’t have anything to prove. Of course you’re Jewish. You made aliyah. You live in Israel.

But the instruction from the Shema for Jews in exile is another thing.

In the second section, the commandments to don tefillin, study and teach Torah and affix mezuzot immediately follow the warning that “you will swiftly perish from the good land that G‑d is giving you.” This, says Rashi (citing Sifri), is to teach us that also after you are exiled, you must distinguish yourselves with the mitzvot: put on tefillin, make mezuzot, so that these not be new to you when you return.

daven-tefillin-siddurWhat has helped the Jewish people survive as the Jewish people throughout each long exile from their Land? For the last nearly two-thousand years, it’s been obedience to the mitzvot; carving out a uniquely Jewish lifestyle that separates them from the peoples of the nations. This may be one of the reasons why halachically Jewish people, particularly those who were born and raised in observant Jewish households, and who have the benefit of a Jewish education, object to non-Jews taking on behaviors reflective of the Jewish sign commandments (wearing tzitzit publicly and so on) and engaging in what one Christian blogger has referred to as Evangelical Jewish Cosplay.

“Messing around” with someone else’s survival mechanism is likely to result in a very strong and unpleasant response.

Which is what we often see in clashes between Jewish Messianic Judaism and Gentile Hebrew Roots. Often non-Jewish people fail to appreciate the collective historical “consciousness” of the Jewish people. I remember sitting in the local Reform synagogue around the time the film The Passion of the Christ (2004) was released. There was tremendous fear in that room about how the local Christian community, not to mention the worldwide Christian community, would respond to that film, particularly in their (our) interactions with Jews.

You wouldn’t imagine that one film would inspire so much anxiety, but historically, after every passion play, there has been a pogrom. It was as if their grandfathers and great-grandfathers and the elders of Israel were whispering in the ears of every Jewish person in shul that morning, telling them of the horrors they had experienced in decades and centuries past. “They’ll watch this film, then something terrible will happen,” they might have been saying to their grandchildren. “I’ve been through this before. I know,” said the plaintive voice.

There’s something woven into the subconscious and in the marrow of every Jew that responds to what has threatened the community of Jews across the ages.

The Torah and the collective lifestyle of Judaism has preserved individual Jews and the Jewish community for untold centuries all over the world. At the core, you can’t really completely separate a Jew from the Torah, anymore than you could take away a person’s eye color or blood type.

There’s a reason why Jews are obligated to recite the Shema twice daily. There’s a reason why there’s a tremendous amount of repetition built into Jewish observance of Torah and of prayer.

If you were to observe large numbers of individual Jewish people in their lives, you would see the scale of religious observance run the gamut from no observance at all as an atheist to an extreme attention to every tiny facet of halachah in Orthodox Jewish life.

That’s the life of an individual Jew as addressed by the first section of the Shema. Individual Jewish people can be observant to one degree or another or completely unobservant. They’re born into covenant, like it or not, but they make choices just like everybody makes choices. An individual Jew may live or die, old or young.

shoahBut collective Jewry has always survived perhaps because, especially at “crunch time,” when the world is doing its best to exterminate all Jews from the face of the earth, Jews rally, the Jewish community unites, they seek distinction and uniqueness, because being Jewish together insures that Judaism will survive, even if some individual Jewish people reject their heritage. Even if individual Jews die Jewish people and Judaism continue.

In Israel, a Jew may not have so much to prove because they are Jewish in the Jewish homeland, but everywhere else, in order to be Jewish, they must not take being Jewish for granted. Every time that’s happened, bad things have resulted.

If you want to see just how “Jewish” a Jewish person is, try to take that Jewishness away from them or claim it for your own as a non-Jew. What God built into the Jewish people from the beginning will erupt. Sometimes, such as when assimilation threatens, that’s not only a good thing, but it’s necessary for survival.

And God intends that Judaism should survive. If you want to know one of the purposes of the Torah and particularly the Shema, that’s a really being one.

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One thought on “The First and Second Shema”

  1. “They must not take being Jewish for granted. Every time that’s happened, bad things have resulted.”

    That resonates with me. Faith is precious. Our identity as children of God is special.

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