Shema: Listen and Respond

Observant Jew praying - obedience to God's laws

The Shema and Obedience

The religions of the book emphasize obedience to God. The name “Islam,” for instance, comes from an Arabic word that means submission. Christians have the model of Jesus who followed the will of his God the Father. “Not my will, but yours,” he said. In the Jewish faith, we can see how important obedience is in a prayer observant Jews recite every morning and evening, the Shema.

Shema, Yisrael, the prayer begins, or “Hear, O Israel.” Shema means listen or hear, but it also means obey. If we think about it, that makes sense. After all, we can’t obey if we don’t listen first, and we show we have listened by doing what makes sense in the circumstances.

This is not blind obedience. Even God will shema at times. That doesn’t mean God will necessarily do what we ask. Rather, God will consider our words and the desires of our hearts, then do what is right and good for that moment. [1] So when we listen and obey at the same time, it means we respond with an action appropriate to the circumstances.

Making Sense of What We Hear

Yet listening is not as easy as it sounds.

The phrase “Shema, Yisrael” is followed by Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad. Typically, this is translated as “the Lord is our God. The Lord is one,” though that is not the only way to understand the Hebrew. It could mean, “Listen up, Israel, you have but one god, and I am she.” Or, as Brian Field puts it, the words could mean, “The Source of our being is one.” [2] Does the phrase refer to the ultimate oneness of all creation? Or is it talking about a deity whose nature, rather than being plural, is singular? Is Adonai solitary and alone? Or is the Shema trying to tell us, again as Field suggests, that Adonai “belongs to all of us” and “makes us one”? [3]

Listen, the Shema might be saying, and listen hard. Try to make sense of what I have to tell you. My meaning is more complicated than you may think.

Loving with Our Heart

After we wrestle with this first sentence, we must make sense of the next, for here Adonai tells us what we are to do. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your might” (Deut 6:5 NIV).

For a moment, set aside the question of what it means to love and look, instead, at the terms “heart,” “soul,” and “might.” Lev, usually translated as heart, refers to that place within us that is the seat of feeling and thinking, both. Like the mind, it can rationalize and oppose ideas, but it also feels and thus is holistic. [4] It reasons and emotes. After all, thinking affects our emotions, and our emotions affect our thoughts, so any attempt to separate them is delusional. Our heart and mind together inform our actions. If we deny one or the other, feeling or thinking, we have trouble choosing well.

Like the term shema, lev implies action as well as thought and feeling. [5] To love Yahweh with our heart is to express our love externally, too. It’s an all-encompassing love that changes us. As Lois Tverberg puts it, in her article about the Shema, “we have not truly put what we have heard into our hearts until it transforms our lives as well.” [6]

But apparently loving with our heart is not enough. We must love, also, with our soul and our might. What does that mean?

puppy sitting and looking up with love - obedience
Photo by Taylor Kopel – Obedience and Love

Loving with Our Soul and Might

The Hebrew word here translated as “soul” is nephesh. Like lev, nephesh contains elements of inward and outward. It refers to the essence of a person, our entire being in all our complex parts. Yet our being exists in relationship. Thus our personhood is never complete, for relationships continually influence and change us. As J. Gordon McConville writes, we are not static beings, but creatures called by Yahweh “to hear and obey.” Thus we evolve and become. [7]

So we are expected to love God with the essence of our being and the influence of our relationships, as well as our thoughts and emotions. But that is still not enough. We must then love with our “might.”

According to McConville, the word meod, translated here as “might,” refers to the trappings of our existence, such as livestock, land, and other material goods. [8] It includes the ways we touch and influence the lives of others, the ways we exert power in the world, as well as what we own.

So in the Shema, we are called to love with all that we are, all that we do, all that we own, and all that we influence. God claims our entire essence and whatever that we identify as ours. And this is what it means to love, to be willing to surrender everything to that which is holy, that is oneness, and honor it with all that is part of us.

Call to Obedience

In the Hebrew faith, as much as Yahweh longs for us to love Him, so does He love us. Thus when He calls us to obedience, it is not to justify power or assert authority, but rather to express love. It is so we might know the joy of being human and holy and fully alive.

According to the Jesuit, David B. Knight, Scripture presents obedience as a source of joy. We see this in the psalms, in the joyful singing of creation, in the exultation of angels. Thus, by calling us to obey, God isn’t trying to constrain us, but is inviting us to become who we are meant to be. When we answer God’s call to obedience, we experience the joy of acting according to our true essence, of living in harmony with nature, of being in right relationship with other humans, and of being united with God. This oneness carries within it “submission, reverence, and love.” [11]

This, essentially, is the call. God doesn’t invite us to a submissive, thoughtless obedience with no room for questioning, but to a free and compassionate one that seeks to serve and finds joy in that service. Just because we listen doesn’t mean we agree, but it does mean we care. “Listening is the climate in which love and respect can grow,” writes Field. [12] Thus, we are invited to love Yahweh with everything we are and own. When we do that, we love not only God, but everything else, as well, for Yahweh is the one and the oneness.

Being Still

To listen, though, we must pause. We must take in, and make meaning out of, the sounds we hear. This takes time. It also takes stillness. When our longings, resentments, fears, and imaginings overwhelm us, when we cannot quiet our thoughts and find some stillness within the chaos, the divine voice will seem soft and incoherent. It will make no sense.

If we are to obey, we must understand. True obedience does not arise from a fear of punishment or a lust for reward. This is obsequiousness or compliance, and it arises from thoughtlessness rather than reflection and consideration. In such false obedience, our heart, soul, and might are compromised. We lose the capacity to love. We may act according to the whims of another, but our being will not be engaged. Such enforced obeisance will turn to resistance whenever possible.

True obedience arises out of the love the Shema calls us to. It begins with a listening that dwells in our hearts, a place where compassion rules. We listen because we care, and we obey because we want to do what is right and holy and good, what is best for all concerned. That takes discernment. Only by finding a place of stillness within and around us do we have a chance of discerning well.

When Yahweh says to the Israelites, “Listen, I’m your God, and I’m the one and the oneness,” and then tells them to “Love me with all your heart, and soul, and might,” God is saying think about this, figure out what it means, and do it because you will see that it is the right thing to do. It will make your life, and the life of those around you, better.

Choose Wisely

The Hebrew Scriptures are filled with all manner of rules and requirements, from acceptable foods to prayers for every activity to proper clothing, but the Jewish people have spent millennia asking why. We see this in their midrashim, for instance. What is the point of this or that or something else? How does this make us better people? Think about this, God seems to be saying, and choose wisely. God does not expect us obey blindly.

You might think, given all the rewards God promises for obedience, the punishments She threatens for those who do not do Her will, that the point is less to listen and more to do what one is told. Yet it is not God who will bring the sun or the rain. They shine or fall on their own. The stories in the Bible are told not so much to warn us of dire consequences if we don’t adhere to the letter of the law, but rather to invite us to understand that if we do act in accordance with these laws, grace will carry us regardless of our circumstances.

If we do what we are told, if we listen, and if we love, our lives will turn out all right. That doesn’t mean we will never experience heartache and disaster. We will. Sometimes one horror after another piles on until it seems we cannot survive anymore. But, according to Scripture, God will be there through it all. That’s what the covenant is about. God will never forsake us, no matter if we forsake Her or not.

We Will Know Joy

That sense of God’s constant presence is the blessing we receive when we open our hearts to that still, small space where the Spirit dwells. When we listen, take in, become one with, understand, then we can act according to the wisdom our reflection has granted us. If we do that, if we enter into the oneness of Source spoken about in the Shema, we will understand how to love. And if we love the divine, we will love ourselves, and we will love our neighbor, because we and they are extensions of that divine essence. When we love so fully and completely, then, no matter how many losses we endure, and though we tremble and rage and mourn, in the end, and even in the process of grieving, we will be well.

On the other hand, if we do not listen, if we do not reflect, and if we do not love, then no worldly gain will be enough.

That is why we obey, not because an authority has ordered us to do something, but because when we listen and do what makes sense in light of love and relationship, we will know joy.

In faith and fondness,

Barbara

Credits

  1. See Benner, Jeff A., “Obey,” Ancient Hebrew Research Center, https://www.ancient-hebrew.org/definition/obey.htm, accessed 12/4/20.
  2. Field, Brian, “listen,” Judaism Your Way, October 30, 2019, https://www.judaismyourway.org/2019/10/30/listen/, accessed 12/2/20.
  3. Ibid.
  4. McConville, J. Gordon, “Keep These Words in Your Heart” (Deut. 6.6): A Spirituality of Torah in the Context of the Shema,” Our God Always: Studies on the Message and Influence of Deuteronomy in Honor of Daniel I. Block, eds. Jason S. DeRouchie, Jason Gile, and Kenneth J. Turner, Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2013, 137.
  5. Ibid 138.
  6. Tverberg, Lois, “Shema – Hear and Obey,” En-Gedi Resource Center, June 30, 2015, https://engediresourcecenter.com/2015/06/30/shema-hear-and-obey/, accessed 12/2/20.
  7. McConville 140.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Knight, David B, “Joy and Judgment in Religious Obedience,” Studies in the Spirituality of Jesuits, Vol. VI, No. 3, St. Louis, MO: American Assistancy Seminar on Jesuit Spirituality, 1974, 140, file:///C:/Users/Barbara/Downloads/3678-Article%20Text-6593-1-10-20130220.pdf, accessed 12/5/20.
  10. Field.

Photo by Francesco Alberti on Unsplash

Copyright © 2020 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved

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