“SHEMA ISRAEL” (Dt 6:4-9)

By Elvis SX

SHEMA ISRAEL! Simply two words, but a centerpiece of the morning and evening Jewish prayer services. Those words that “Yahweh” told the Jews through Moses, his prophet, many years ago before our Christian era, are still relevant and full of meaning up to now.

First of all, the term “Shema” is translated into English as LISTEN. I find this world very telling and full of meaning. It is the opening word of what will be considered by some as “Jewish creed” or centerpiece of Jewish prayer and reckoned as well by Jesus in Mk 12:29-30. I see in this word a call to Israel’s attention to the teaching of God for Israel’s own good. It is a
constant reminder that Israel was a people summoned by God to hear God’s Word. This call implies a response: Israel’s people are not mere spectators to a divine “show” but an active response is expected from them.

Even in the secular world we know how listening is the key to one’s understanding and therefore to one’s response to the society. Listening is a skill very cherished nowadays especially in the business world. It is said that the better at listening one is, the more productive one will be in his/her career. A good listener is likely able to better understand the work they have been given, as well as what is expected of them.

To show how to LISTEN (which is different from to hear: Hearing is a physical ability while listening is a skill) is very important in a conversation, Deuteronomy opens with this call to LISTENING. Indeed, how hard it is nowadays to find someone who really knows how to listen? Oftentimes, it becomes easy to speak to others, but when it comes to listening, it becomes difficult! Sad to say, we are losing this fundamental skill.

The verse goes on: “…Yahweh our God is the one Yahweh.” This is not a mere statement of a metaphysical oneness of God which is shared by many philosophical understandings or movements and different religions. But this verse wants to highlight the personhood of God who has a personal name which is Yahweh, a way of differentiating God from the multitude of gods that surrounded Israel (e.g. The Baals in the Canaanite cults).

Another idea highlighted is that Yahweh is not an abstract, impersonal and ineffable but a God in relationship with his people through a living covenant. How many times we Christians relate to God as a God very far in the sky. I think that we can learn from this to change this understanding and relate to a God who is personal and who cares for us because he is one, consistent, faithful and true within. He is the same no matter what happens.

The verse continues: “You shall love Yahweh your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength”. In today’s world, the term “love” has many meanings and some of them are simple “shortcuts”. There is no true love without sacrifice; there is no love without personal commitment. The wholeness/oneness of Yahweh is to be met with a response involving the wholeness of the human person: with your whole self, including your rationality, mental capacity, moral choices and will, inner feelings and desires, and the deepest roots of our life. This love that God expects from us must not be considered as a mere romantic feeling or aptitude, rather it is lived out through practical acts of obedience in every sphere of our daily life. For instance, if God is concerned with the orphans and widows, loving God means, sharing that same concern. (Dt 10:18-19)

This verse shows a call to a total and undivided loyalty to God. God is “jealous” and doesn’t want to be shared with other deities. In a world that wants to “go along and get along” it is difficult to understand this exclusive loyalty to God. Even now, we still have what is called syncretism, where people, go to the Church morning and in the afternoon go to consult a sorcerer. God is to be loved without other mixture because now we have many things that are often put side by side with God and are equated to him: money, science, technology, etc.

That’s what Elijah means when he says: “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal then follow him.” In the end, the community assents to Elijah’s vigorous demand: “The Lord indeed is God, the Lord indeed is God” (1Kgs 18: 39) or in the New Testament: “No one can serve two masters…” (Mt 6:24).

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