Our Choice in the Shema
This week’s Parashat Eikev is about hearing and listening.
The second paragraph of the Shema’, derived from this week’s parashah, begins by emphasizing the importance of these two concepts: hearing and listening. The text states: vehayah im shamoa tishmau; if you will earnestly heed the mitzvot I give you this day (Deuteronomy 11:13). Is it possible to heed without being earnest?
The words shamoa tishmau seem to be redundant. They are both forms of the Hebrew root shin, mem, ayin; shma — meaning to hear. But, what is the significance of saying it twice?
Throughout the Bible, repetition of words typically connotes emphasis. But why is hearing emphasized? The prayer preceding vehayah im shamoa tishmau also starts out with the word, shema, but there is no repetition in that case. It is only said once, shema yisrael (hear O Israel).
I want to suggest that the repetition of the root shma is demonstrative of our partnership with God. Its function is to illustrate that in a relationship, even with God, we not only hear God, but we wish to be heard as well.
Hearing and being heard involves engaging in a partnership with God. That partnership is strengthened with ritual and with commitment. Most importantly, we hear with our faith, and we are heard with our actions. Rabbi Louis Finkelstein, z”l, former Chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary from 1934 to 1972, was fond of saying that when he prayed, he talked to God. When he studied, God talked to him. He was hearing and being heard.
There is a poignant story of a young child who says her prayers nightly before going to bed. During the week of Hanukkah she adds a special plea to God for a new bicycle. All eight nights of Hanukkah come and go, but no bicycle. Her parents ask her if she was disappointed that God did not hear her prayers. The young girl replied, “God heard my prayers, God just said no.”
This story illustrates a partnership between the child and God. The child understood that the fact that God did not answer her prayers according to her requests does not mean God did not hear her. Hearing is not judged on whether we receive the answers we are searching for. Hearing is listening to the answers, whatever they are and trying to understand them.
As in many things in life, it is the small things that make a big difference. Two Hebrew letters, when joined together can make one colossal word. Alef and Mem make Im. Im is understood as “if”— and “if” takes us to the notion of choice. Choice is the issue here. The choice lies between doing or not doing, hearing or not hearing, listening or not listening.
If you earnestly heed the mitzvot I give you this day, to love Adonai your God and to serve God with all your heart and all your soul then I will favor your land with rain at the proper season, in autumn and spring and you will have an ample harvest of grain and wine and oil.
Take care, lest you be tempted to stray and to worship false gods. For then, God’s wrath will be directed against you. God will close the heavens and hold back the rain; the earth will not yield its produce .(Deuteronomy 11:13–17)
Choice, as it is presented in the Shema, is the integral connection between human beings and the divine. We are not simply dealt cards and told to play them. We choose many of our cards. And, it is how we choose to play them that make all of the difference. Divine messages will not necessarily be shouted at us every moment of every day. But, if we listen, sometimes we can hear the whispers and then make choices. The directive of the Shema’ is to state loud and clear just what God is asking of us; to be God’s partner.
Maimonides teaches in his code (The Laws of Teshuvah, 5:1–3):
Free will is granted to every person. If a person desires to follow the good path and be righteous, he/she is free to do so and if they desire to follow a path of evil and wickedness, likewise he/she is free to do so. This constitutes a fundamental principle and pillar of the Torah and its precepts. The Creator does not force God’s will on any person, or pre–ordain him/her to do good or evil, rather the choice is theirs.
The choice is ours.
The Shema is a complicated prescription for life, chock full of challenges. Promises are made as reward for partnership with God. Threats are stated as chastisements for lack of compliance. But, ultimately, there is nothing to be negotiated without the preexistence of a partnership.
An anecdote in a popular prayer book found before the Shema goes something like this: If people go to a sports game yet their mind is on business, they hear, but they do not really hear. If people go to synagogue and think the rabbi’s sermon is addressing someone else, they hear but do not really hear.
My prayer is that our hearing and listening will constantly become more acute so we really hear, that “if” becomes “when,” and our hearts and souls are united in service to God.
Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.