Shema (2) – Love and Follow

This translation of the second paragraph of the Sh’ma intersperses close reading of the original Hebrew with meditative interpolations to expand on multiple meanings and ambiguities in the Hebrew, as well as in the translation itself. The reader is invited to use this as a starting point for personal meditation on the deep power and beauty of the Sh’ma.

Alexander Massey, Apr-Jul 2010

<< Shema (1) – Listen and Love

Listen1 – listen deeply.
I enjoin you,
join with Me, and joy will be yours2.
All that is now
Flows3 from God4
And what you each5 have done6.
All that will be
Flows from now7.
Every step8 you take
Brings blessing or curse9.
Here, this moment10
Choose life.
I require you all
Today and every day,
To commit as one11
To love12
My creatures13 as yourselves –
You and they and I are one14.
Love Me
and you will love the world15;
With every thought and impulse16 17,
Love what I create,
Living constantly18
As a prayerful19 people.
Live in harmony20
With each other and My Creation21,
And all nations will be blessed22;
The rhythm of the rains23
And the cycle of the seasons
Will bless the earth,
And she will bless you24
Equals25 all.
So too your minds, souls and lives will be renewed26.
Maintain soil, soul and society27
In right relationship,
And all can be sustained28,
You will all be nourished29,
And say to All That Is: hineni30 – ‘here I am’31.
Listen and beware32
Or your attention33 will be distracted,
And you will turn34
From what is wholesome35
To bind yourself[36] to only yourself,
To appetites37 and cravings38,
Estranging39 yourself from Me40.
Anger, otherness and separation41
From Being42
Will be what you come to know43.
You will lose your sense
Of God and heaven –
the Ultimate Reality that lies behind
and gives rise to all things.
Fire, air, water44 and earth45 46,
Which you could know as blessings
You will feel47 as curse48;
And you will perish49
Soon, soon50
From an earth
That daily51 I make good52,
And surrender53
Into your care55.
So take these, My words,
My Torah, and My Creation56,
To your hearts and into your souls57,
honouring the wisdom there is in community58,
and holding fast to Me59.
Embody60 the spirit61 of My words
In action and thought62.
You are My hands.
What will you create63?
Will your touch be holy?64
You are My eyes.
Will your eyes pierce all with love65?
Will you keep Me always before you66?
Learn67 what I teach you,
and do not let wisdom die with you68.
Teach by example69;
pass on what good you learn
To your children70
and those who come after you.
Speak these words yourself
to make them your own,
and encourage71 your children to do so72.
Let these, My words, be your song73 too;
Sing them with your whole self74:
When you feel at home and in your power75,
And when you feel76 exiled,
Or as a stranger in the midst of others77,
Throughout your days78.
Keep these words in your awareness
As you move
From one moment or space
To the next79,
Knowing that each threshold,
Each separation
Conceals80 God’s unity81.
If82 you humbly83 do all these things,
You will endure84,
And the earth
that God has given humanity85,
your ancestors, you and your descendants86,
Will endure
Until the day when heaven and earth become one87,
And everywhere will become Eden once again88.


[1] Im shamoa tishm’u brings us back to the act of listening again. Why the repetition of the root word sh’ma here? In order to learn all we need to, we must listen, listen, and listen again. Referring to the Torah, Ben Bag Bag taught: “Turn Her and turn Her, for She contains everything.” An idiomatic English equivalent might be ‘if you listen with all ears’.

[2] The usual translation of mitzvah as ‘commandment’ fails to convey the idea that doing what God requires is a joy because it brings us closer to God. The root word of mitzvah is tzav, and is linked to the expression tzavsa v’chibur, “cleaving and attachment.” The idea of all mitzvot is that through them we become “attached” to G-d. (Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Lubavitcher Rebbe, Likkutei Sichos, 1902-94). The word ‘enjoin’ conveys the double meaning of instruction and attachment; the repetition in the Hebrew of mitz’votai and m’tzaveh perhaps alludes to the two dimensions, duty and pleasure, ‘enjoin’ and ‘joy’.

[3] The second paragraph of the Sh’ma comes from Deuteronomy in the portion (parsha) called Eikev that begins v’hayah eikev – “these are the things that will happen, as a result of” (eikev, meaning ‘because’). The second Sh’ma paragraph begins v’hayah im, meaning “These are the things that will happen, when”. It grapples with the laws of cause and effect. My version expands on this idea of cause and effect through personal history and through the history of the Jewish people, and then all humanity.

[4] The verb v’hayah (it will be) – which expresses everything’s connectedness – is made of the same four letters (YHVH) as the Tetragrammaton*, the name of God.

[5] The first paragraph of the Sh’ma is addressed to the individual, the second, to the plural form of ‘you’, the collective. Hence the plural used in this translation of paragraph two. Our individual fates are inextricably linked to the collective actions of the society in which we live, a society in which we play our own role. We cannot absolve ourselves from the choices of others, for our response-ability means we can choose to do or not do something about those choices and their consequences. So too, linear time dissolves, and we share in response-ability for the actions of others made in an earlier time. For example, are we not accomplices in the ‘missings of the mark’ of past generations (e.g. the horrors of the Shoah), if we learn nothing from them, or do nothing to contribute to their repair or to prevent their recurrence?

[6] The challenge down the ages has been to ascertain what, within the destiny of Creation, lies in the hands of God, and what lies within human responsibility. The law of cause and effect originates from God, for God is the ultimate Cause. At the same time, while we are an emanation of God, we experience our own actions as separate, and thereby take personal responsibility for them. What we do makes a difference, and we cannot abdicate our role in tikkun olam (repairing the world). As the Sufi saying goes: “Trust in God, but tie up your camel.”

[7] This trope echoes the references to eternity, and the flow of God’s infiniteness into the finite reality that we perceive. The 18th century Lithuanian kabbalaist Alexander Susskind of Grodno (d.1793) wrote in his guidance text on prayer, ‘The Foundation and Root of Divine Worship’: “I believe with perfect faith, pure and true, that You are one and unique and that You created all worlds, upper and lower, without end, and You are in past, present and future.” (Quoted in Encyclopedia Judaica Vol 14 col 1374)

[8] Another meaning for eikev is ‘heel’ (the root of Ya’akov Jacob who held on to the heel of his brother at birth). Rashi comments on this verse: “If you will heed the minor commandments which one [usually] tramples with his heels [i.e., which a person treats as being of minor importance].” My version reflects the dual idea of the ‘heel’ and the small act in the metaphor of the ‘step’. “There is but one step between me and death.” (1 Samuel 20:3)

[9] Blessing and curse are recurrent themes in Moses’ speeches in Deuteronomy, as well as the idea of consequences to our actions. For example, (Deut 30:19) “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: that I have put before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life – if you and your offspring would live – by loving the Lord your God, heeding His commands, and holding fast to Him.” This is the essence of part 2 of the Sh’ma. The small step, towards either direction, has significance, as taught by Ben Azzai (Pirkei Avot 4:2) “Run to pursue a minor mitzvah, and flee from a transgression. For a mitzvah brings another mitzvah, and a transgression brings another transgression.” In Genesis, God says to Cain: “Why are you distressed, and why is your face fallen? Surely if you do right, there is uplift, but if you do not do right, sin is a demon at your door whose urge is toward you. Yet you can be his master!” (Gen. 4:6-7) The story of Adam and Eve tells us that choice is a fundamental part of being human.

[10] Hayom (‘today’) in this passage means that these words are as relevant now as they were centuries ago when they were first written. Rashi: “[‘this day’ suggests] that [the commandments] should [always] be to you as new, as though you had just heard them on this very day.” (Sifrei , 11:32) This idea of the immediacy of commitment and action ‘today’ (as in the first Sh’ma paragraph) is a recurrent theme in Jewish ethics. Hillel taught: “Do not say, ‘When I have some free time I will study [Torah],’ for perhaps you will never have free time.” (Pirkei Avot 2:5) Some things are regarded within Judaism as being too important to put off until later. There is a wonderful teaching in the Talmud (Shabbat 153a): “Rabbi Eliezer would say: Return [to God] one day before your death. [Pirkei Avot 2:15] Asked his disciples: Does a man know on which day he will die? Said he to them: So being the case, he should return [to God] today, for perhaps tomorrow he will die; hence, all his days are passed in a state of returning [to God].” The message is: ‘Listen. Wake up. It’s time. Act now!’ In the Australian Progressive prayer book, it says, “Each day points to eternity: the fate of all time depends upon a single moment” (Adapted by Frishman (2010, p.69) from Abraham Joshua Heschel)

[11] The Hebrew addresses ‘you’ in the plural throughout this second part of the Sh’ma.

[12] Notice the juxtaposition of ‘today’ and what we are told the heart can do (ie love). In Deut 30:11 ff, God says, “Surely, this instruction I enjoin upon you today is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond your reach … No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, so that you may do it.” (See also notes 38, 39, 42 for Shema Part 1 – Listen and Love)

[13] The great commandment, referred to sometimes as the Golden Rule, comes from Lev 19:18 “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Perhaps we can think of not just people, but the whole web of life on our planet, as our neighbour – to love our neighbour, and Creation itself, is to love the body and essence of God. Hillel taught: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.” (Mishnah, Shabbat 31a)

[14] “Human beings must cherish the world, said the Baal Shem Tov. To deprecate, to deride it was presumption. Creation, all of creation, was pervaded with dignity and purpose and embodied God’s meaning.” (Heschel, A Passion for Truth, 1973, p. 24) The unity expressed in this midrash, in the Sh’ma itself, is not the same as uniformity or the conformity that might imply. Diversity is integral to the beauty, majesty and mystery of Creation – unity can come through harmony (a symphony?) of diverse aspects, and even from the balance / equilibrium arising from the tension of opposing forces.

[15] The first Sh’ma paragraph commanded loving; this second commands loving, and also serving. I have interpreted this as loving God first, as an inclination or act of the heart in itself (in kabbalah in the world of Yetzirah / emotion), and then, as a result of this, we discover the authentic way to serve God with the rest of ourselves in the world of action (in Assiyah / action).

[16] L’vavchem (as ‘minds’ rather than ‘hearts’, see note 47 in Shema Pt 1) has been translated as ‘thoughts’ and nafsh’chem (as ‘life force’ rather than ‘souls’) as ‘impulse’.

[17] The Rabbis point out that the second paragraph – ‘ serve with all your hearts and souls’ – leaves out the third element, arguing that if a whole community surrendered its material powers and property, this would be clearly unsustainable. Individuals might do more or do less at different times, and a community can support individuals with varying levels of prosperity, but it cannot afford to deplete itself collectively.

[18] This prayerfulness or mindfulness can be ‘constant’ in more than one way: in uninterrupted consistency, and also through devotion.

[19] In Rashi’s commentary on this verse, he points out that prayer (tefillah) is called avodah she-balev ‘service of the heart’, so l’av’do here could also mean ‘pray’.

[20] This whole section has parallels in the Creation story of Genesis 1 and the Garden of Eden (an idealised world of harmony) as well as Psalm 104 that poetically relates the elements of Creation. Ps 104:14 “You make the grass grow for the cattle, and herbage for man’s labour that he may get food out of the earth.”

[21] The modern concept of eco-kashrut* speaks to this holistic ecology.

[22] At Shemini Azeret (the day after the 7-day ‘harvest’ Festival of Sukkot), Jewish liturgy includes prayers “for the 70 nations”, an acknowledgement that the God Israel is the God of all. The process of tikkun olam* (healing the world), requires that the whole world receives blessing.

[23] In the liturgy, as well as in the Torah itself, prayers for rain are always also metaphorically prayers for God’s blessings generally. At Shemini Azeret (note 22), the Geshem (‘rain’) prayers feature prominently in the additional morning service (musaf). A set of liturgical poems (piyyutim) recalling Biblical figures repeats the phrase “for his sake do not withhold water!”, and leads into the invocation “He causes the wind to blow and the rain to descend”, that, in turn heralds the yemot ha-geshamin (days of rains) that last for half the year. The Geshem prayers continue until the first day of Pesach (Passover), when they are replaced by tal (dew/mannah) prayers.

[24] Grain, wine and oil were the three main crops of the agricultural year. The Romans in the 1st century BCE and 1st century CE owned latifundia across the Roman empire, huge areas of land that specialised in these. To have your own grain, wine and oil would mean wealth and independence. They were used as currency, wages, and for tithes (taxes); and they were used as offerings in the Temple, a practice borrowed to this day in the consecration ceremony of a Masonic lodge. These crops can also be considered as symbols of God’s (and therefore also spiritual) abundance (e.g. II Chronicles, Nehemiah, Hosea, Joel).

[25] Neglecting to love our neighbour as ourselves has far reaching impact on political power, inequities in health, education and mortality rates, disparities in food production and distribution, and imbalance in relationship to environment and earth’s resources. This is nothing new. Pirkei Avot 5:8 says: “When some tithe and others don’t, a hunger caused by turmoil ensues: some are hungry, others have their fill of food. […] The sword comes to the world for the procrastination of justice, the corruption of justice, and because of those who misinterpret the Torah.” It all begins with neglect of the values that the way of the Torah represents. Hillel Silverman in his introduction to Garfiel (The Service of the Heart: a Guide to the Jewish Prayer Book, 1958) points out that prayer cannot engineer “the supernatural suspension and violation of the laws of nature”. A traditional reading of the 2nd paragraph of the Sh’ma might suggest that observance of mitzvot could do just that. However, the Rabbis asked: “If God hates idolatry, why does God not destroy the objects of idolatry? If someone stole grain and planted it in the earth, why does it grow? Why does an illicit sexual relationship result in pregnancy? (Avoda Zara 54B).” The answer is the traditional saying olam ke-minhago noheg – the world/reality follows natures laws (‘custom’). As Reb Nachman of Bratslav (1772-1811) said: “do not ask that God change the laws of nature for you.” The modern idea of eco-kashrut* is a response to this issue.

[26] Ps 104:15 might suggest a metaphorical / spiritual meaning for grain, wine and oil: “wine that cheers the hearts (levav) of men, oil that makes the face (panim) shine, and bread that sustains man’s life (levav).” Lev (see various notes in Shema Pt 1) can mean mind; panim (faces) can be thought of as the soul (as in peniel the face of God); I have taken poetic licence with the repetition of levav to echo the Sh’ma themes of ‘heart, soul and might’.

[27] The Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hahn (1926-2022) spoke of ‘inter-being’, saying that we ‘inter-are’. Satish Kumar (b. 1936, Director of Programmes of the Schumacher College international centre for ecological studies), translates the ancient Indian philosophy of ‘so hum’ as “you are, therefore I am”. Informed by Jain and philosophy, he refers to the interdependence between the environment, the individual, and humanity as whole as ‘soil, soul and society’.

[28] The inter-connectedness of eco-kashrut* means that looking out for other people, including the generations that will follow us, will lead to responsible stewardship of the natural world; this will mean that crops (‘grass’ in the Sh’ma text) and livestock (‘cattle’) will flourish; our sources of livelihood, food (‘you shall eat’), lodging and clothing will be assured, and we will be able, like Joseph in Egypt, to provide for those who fall on hard times. The ‘virtuous’ cycle of mutual sustainability will continue. God charged Adam and Eve with powers and responsibilities: “And God blessed them; and God said unto them: ‘Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth [v’milu et ha-aretz], and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth.’” (Gen 1:28) Ruling, mastering, and – most importantly – replenishing, are quite different activities from using without any thought or care for possible negative consequences.

[29] The question is not ‘can there be food, shelter, health, education, safety, justice, for the world’s disenfranchised?’, but ‘how can these be achieved?’. “It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task, but neither are you free to absolve yourself from it.” (Pirkei Avot 2:16) Given the overwhelming challenge of tikkun olam (healing the world), where do we begin? From where we are. That might be with ourselves, or with someone in our immediate orbit, by acting to meet need before appetite.

[30] In the story of the binding (akedah) of Isaac (Gen 22) when God calls to Abraham (v.1), and when an angel calls to him to stay his hand (v.11), both times Abraham responds with hineni ‘here I am’, the implication being that he becomes present physically, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually to who or what calls in that moment. When God calls to Moses from the burning bush, he too responds hineni (Ex. 3:4), and Isaiah (6:8) says: “And I heard the voice of the Lord, saying: Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then I said: ‘Here I am [hineni]; send me.’” This is the essence of “we will do and we will hear” (Ex. 24:7), the principle of committing to God first, and clarifying (or even re-negotiating) the details of the arrangement later. יננה hineni has interesting layers of meaning. In the Talmud (Shabbat 140a), there is a teaching that the two forms of the letter nun (of which only one form appears in this word) represent ‘one who is bent over’ and ‘one who is straight’. The Maharal (1520-1609), a Jewish mystic and Talmudic scholar, taught that these represent the two ways of serving God, through fear or love respectively. In hineni, the two nun letters sit between hey and yud both letters often used as shorthands for the name of God. So surrender to God is shown in the word, whichever direction the nun is facing. Perhaps, in the Sh’ma, to ‘be satisfied’ would mean to be ‘at one’ with God, with what comes at us, to be fully present to it in the spirit of hineni. (See also note 31)

[31] v’akhal’ta v’sava’ta: Some translations say, “and you will eat your fill” (ie you will be satisfied because you eat). A more accurate translation would be: “and you will eat and be satisfied”. The deeper meaning (and challenge) might be that satisfaction, ie gratitude towards God, does not have to be conditional on our getting what we want. In Deut 8:10 “you will eat, and be satisfied, and bless the Lord our God” could be taken as three quite unrelated events. Faith then becomes unconditional, and not a ‘fair weather’ sentiment. So in this context, ‘being satisfied’ would be not so much a feeling as – much more profoundly – an attitude freely chosen (and perhaps hard won): it would be the act of being present non-judgementally, non-dually, peacefully, to Reality itself, to All That Is, to God. We live in two worlds: olam hazeh (dual, physical reality) in which we must work for tikkun olam, and olam haba (the ‘world to come’) that is already here in moments of grace when we can experience non-duality and the immanence of God in Creation. Attention to olam hazeh can provoke the dissatisfaction necessary to propel us into ethical action and the journey to collective and self transcendence. Attention to olam haba can keep in check our capacities both for arrogance and self-invalidation. Olam haba – direct I-Thou encounter with God – can be experienced when we live the spirit of hineni (see note 30) in olam hazeh. Paradoxically perhaps, this is simultaneously nourishing (‘satisfying’) and awe-inspiring.

[32] Usually translated ‘beware’, hiSHaMru is connected to the same root as עמש SHeMa (‘listen’, starting para 1) and im SHaMoa tiSHM’u (‘if you listen with all ears’, starting para 2); hence the meaning is more like ‘listen and beware’.

[33] lev, meaning ‘mind’, could, by extension, also mean ‘attention’ in this context. Why does Biblical text keep drawing our attention to the importance of where we direct our lev (heart / mind / will)? Doing the right thing – what is healthy for us, and others, including the environment – requires high levels of awareness (using our whole self) and ethical attentiveness. Right living as a habit can be developed through practice, ie numerous repetitions of particular ways of thinking, feeling and doing. Neuroscience shows that in order for those repetitions to be accurate and well-directed, they need our attention.

[34] v’sartem ‘turn’ – Turning to or away from God is a recurrent theme in the Bible. When Moses encounters the burning bush (Ex 3:3-4), Moses decides to ‘turn’ (sar) to see what it is, and God sees that he has turned to take notice and consider the revelation being offered. Later on, God speaks to Moses about Israel, saying: “I have seen this people, and, behold, it is a stiffnecked people.” The implication is that Israel does not turn to notice God, and this is what distinguishes Moses from among them. In the Shema, God expresses concern that we will turn away.

[35] This picks up on Rashi’s point that the turning away is from the Torah. The word ‘wholesome’ here is to express the universality of what the teachings and spirit of the Torah represent. The word ‘wholesome’ shares the same origin as ‘healthy’, ‘heal’ and ‘holy’.

[36] Avad’tem ‘serve’ – Avodah she-balev ‘service of the heart’ is another term for prayer (tefillah). Tefillah can also mean ‘binding’. The binding in this passage is in the form of slavish service.

[37] “we renew ourselves, not by indulging our appetites, but by improving our tastes.” Silver, Abba Hillel (undated)) ‘Renewal’, The Temple Tiferet Israel, Cleveland (1893-1963)

[38] Elohim can also mean ‘powers’, in this passage referring to forces that pull us away from God. Rashi points out that this verses follows the one where we eat and are satisfied, and warns that we must not become complacent as a result, or worship what satisfies us. But Deut. 8:11-18 goes further than this, warning us not to worship ourselves, believing ourselves to be the source of what is good for us: “Take care lest you forget the Lord your God […] When you have eaten and are satisfied, and have built a fine house to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own has prospered, beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget the Lord your God […] and you say to yourselves, ‘My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.’ Remember that it is the Lord your God who gives you the power to get wealth […]”

[39] In the opening of the Sh’ma, we are taught to announce very clearly that God is echaD ‘one’, so as not to confuse it with acheR, meaning ‘other’ or ‘strange’. When deluded, we follow elohim acheirim ‘other gods’, rather than adonai echad ‘The One God’.

[40] In Gen 2:7 we are told that God formed (vayyitzer) man. The spelling of two yuds is unusual. Rashi and Gen Rabbah 14:14 teach that this represents that we are born with two types of impulse (yetzer). The ‘good’ one yetzer hatov reveals itself when we are aligned with God, Torah values and the non-temporal, non-dual ‘world to come’ (olam haba); the other yetzer hara reveals itself when we want to do something that serves our personal desires, and we are attentive to the temporal world of dual reality (olam hazeh). This second is sometimes translated ‘evil impulse’, but that is not right. It is neither good or bad in itself, but can either be in alignment with Torah values and what is ultimately good, or not. For example, hunger is okay, but stealing food is suspect. Sexual desire is okay, but rape is not. The Talmud teaches: “Were it not for the evil impulse yetzer hara no man would build a house, marry a wife or beget children.” (Genesis Rabba 9:7) Many prophets and patriarchs spoke with God, but only Joseph, who never conversed with God this way, was call ha’tzaddik ‘the righteous’, because he overcame in his yetzer hara his tendency to self-inflation as a young man, the seductive advances of Potiphar’s wife, and the temptation to use his power to take vengeance on his brothers. The Talmud teaches that “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart” (Deut. 6:5) means “with the two impulses – the [tov] and the [ra].” (Sifre on Deut. 6:5). Free will enables us to align our personal will and desires – yetzer hara – with God’s if we choose; it is part of the human condition to wrestle with how to care for oneself whilst not neglecting the Other. Following yetzer hara to the exclusion of yetzer hatov is unhealthy for self and Other; balancing yetzer hara with yetzer hatov promotes health.

[41] This midrash* plays on the phrase v’CHaRah af adonai ‘and will be kindled (charah) the anger (af) of God’ and eCHaR ‘other’ sharing the letters kaf reish.

[42] YHVH* is translated here as ‘Being’. But we can also read this English midrash* another way: in falling out of right relationship with God and with Creation and others, we become restless, losing contact with our own sense of just ‘being’.

[43] The Hebrew says that God will be angry. But who will start this anger and separation – God or us? The ambiguity in this midrash* is deliberate: when we are angry and emotionally ‘dislocated’, we perceive God as angry and separating from us.

[44] Fire, air and water can be thought of as coming from hashamayim (heaven/skies). Fire is the life-giving sun, its rays coming to damage us through a damaged ozone layer, parching the earth in drought-ridden countries poorly cared for by the global community; it also damages in fires caused by human irresponsibility. We pollute the air that sustains us. We poison the waters of the planet, producing toxic rain. In the Torah, the waters of the Red Sea saved the Israelites, but destroyed Pharaoh and his army; the waters of Marah were bitter and undrinkable, but Miriam’s well kept the Israelites alive during their wanderings. Water can bless or curse.

[45] The earth will become a diminishing resource (lit. ‘ the earth will not yield fruit’). Reb Zalman Shachter-Shalomi translates this as “And the Earth will not be able to recover her good balance in which God’s gifts manifest”. Sabbath Supplement to A Weekday Siddur – As I Can Say It

[46] The verse refers both to hashamayim (heaven) and ha’adamah (earth), which could be a disguised merism (using two extremes/opposites) meaning ‘everything that is created’. This midrash names the four archetypal elements to represent everything we experience as dual-reality beings.

[47] When we live in right relationship, God’s blessing is a consciously experienced reality; we ‘know’ it in our bones. When we fall out of this relationship, the consequences are disastrous practically, ecologically, emotionally, psychologically, socially; we ‘feel’ the consequence as a curse. The deeper reality is that even the disastrous consequences can be understood as a blessing – as a wake-up call to return to right relationship and work towards tikkun olam (healing of the world).

[48] God expelled Adam and Eve from Eden for their misconduct, and brought a flood in Noah’s generation. This is a warning of a ‘third time around’ where God does not need to intervene directly in history for us to experience the law of heaven; there will be natural consequences to our actions, according to the laws of nature, which are governed by the laws of heaven (see comments on olam ke-minhago noheg in note 25). Rashi points out that because of experience of history, we cannot claim ignorance: “I will give you no extensions … the generation of the flood had no one to learn from, but you do have someone to learn from.”

[49] The first paragraph of the Sh’ma tells us to love, the second tells us to do so with a ‘carrot and stick’ approach, explaining what will happen if we do or don’t love. What could motivate us to do the right thing? Unfortunately, it is not always enough to know that it is the right thing to do. The Bible and Jewish thought have wrestled with this question for many centuries. Is it love ahavah, or fear/awe yirah? Sometimes, it is with inspired adoration of the Divine (a blend of love and awe) that motivate us, and sometimes it is fear of being found out, of punishment (Divine or human), or negative natural consequences; all can potentially lead us to God. Pirkei Avot 1:3 evokes this tension: “Be not like slaves that serve their master to receive a reward; be like those that serve their master without regard to reward, and let the fear of Heaven be upon you.”

[50] M’heirah ‘soon’ is a word easily overlooked. This important word adds urgency to the message. We are not supposed to pass our responsibilities onto the generations that follow us.

[51] The Hebrew expresses giving in the present tense. So God’s giving is not just a historical act for our ancestors, but something that is ongoing that we can experience each moment, right now. If the gift is every day, then there is a new opportunity every day for us to do something good with that give.

[52] In the account of Creation in Genesis, there is a recurring phrase “and God saw that it was good”. What we have been given by God is sufficient. What we do with it can either damage or sustain that goodness. The English phrase used here (‘make good’) can also mean ‘put right’ or ‘repair’; perhaps like a patient parent, God puts the world together, even when we break it, to give us another chance to learn to treat it well.

[53] The Hebrew word means ‘give’. The midrashic choice of ‘surrender’ reminds us that this is an act of trust by God. But we can never know why God gives us the earth to live on, or “whether for scourge/correction, or for the land, or for mercy, [God] causes these [events in the world]” (Job 37:13).

[54] True giving is an act of love. “Love ever gives, Forgives, Outlives; Love ever stands, With open hands, And while it lives It gives; For this is love’s prerogative To give And give And give.” (William Arthur Dunkerley, pen name ‘John Oxenham’ 1852-1941)

[55] The Sh’ma reminds us that the earth has been ‘given’ to us – “To cultivate it and keep/guard it” (Genesis 2:15). This gift is also a responsibility: “God led Adam around the Garden of Eden and said, “Look at My works. See how beautiful they are, how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not soil or destroy My world — for if you do, there will be no one to repair it after you.” (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13)

[56] divrei can mean words or things. This midrash understands divrei at three levels. First, the Sh’ma itself is made of words that we must take to heart. Second, the ‘words’ might be ‘The’ Torah of the five books of Moses, the Oral Torah, and ‘Torah’ (the whole tradition of Jewish wisdom throughout history, and all wisdom whatever its context). We are told by Proverbs 3:18 that “She [Torah] is a tree of life for those who hold fast to her, and happy are those who support her.” Third, the ‘word’ is the Biblical metaphor for God’s creative force, the world coming into being through God’s utterances. divrei as ‘things’ could be the outcome of God’s utterances – Creation itself. This passage reads et divrei eileh. The תא et is perhaps an echo of Gen 1:1 ץראה תאו םימשה תא et hashamyim v’et ha-aretz (God created heaven and earth). The teaching is that the first et is a coded reference to aleph and tav, the first and last letters of the Hebrew alphabet, indicating that God first created all the letters so that he could use words created by them, to create everything else.

[57] Deciding what ‘hearts’ and ‘souls’ are is a personal decision. This midrash has expanded on the Hebrew words vav and nefesh in the first section of the Sh’ma. In the second section, the traditional English words have been used, and the reader is invited to bring their own meanings and associations to these words.

[58] The Hebrew plural is used here. What does it mean to take God’s words into our collective heart or soul? The Quakers teach an important principle of ‘discernment’ in their decision-making processes: “It is helpful if you prepare beforehand, read the papers and reflect prayerfully on the business, but remember that responsibility for the outcome belongs to the meeting as a whole, not to any individual. Come to the meeting with heart and mind prepared – not heart and mind made up.” While an individual can provide leadership, the success of much of human life depends on people collectively supporting the leadership.

[59] “Follow none but the Lord your God, and revere none but Him; observe His commandments alone, and heed only His orders; worship none but Him and hold fast to Him (ןוקבדת ובו uvo ti’debakun).” (Deut 13:5) The root of this last word is devekut* ‘cleaving to God’. Action that fails to bind us to God is wasted effort. Jewish mystics teach that devekut is our ultimate goal. Responding with the heart is essential for this. Baruch shem, the second line of the Sh’ma sensitises us to this. This midrash uses the personal pronouns to emphasise the I-Thou quality of how God relates to us.

[60] Some manuscripts of the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Tanakh* in 3rd and 2nd century BCE) regarded the ‘binding’ as metaphorical. Rabbinic and Orthodox tradition saw it as literal and physical. Far from being superstitious amulets to magically ward off evil, wearing tefillin* was regarded as a symbolic statement of commitment to Judaism and the God of Israel. This midrash aims to honour both metaphorical and literal interpretations – so our hands represent action, and our eyes seeing images take us to our imagination and thinking, and how we see and understand the world.

[61] If God cannot be described, then we must be careful in assuming that we can adequately put into words what God requires of us, and how we should respond to God. Heschel explores this problem in God in Search of Man: “the divergence between what we think and what we say is due to the necessity of the adjustment of insight to the common categories of thought and language. Thus, more serious than the problem of how should the religious man justify his creed in terms of philosophical thinking is the problem of how should the religious man justify his concepts, his creed in terms of religious insight and experience? There is a profound disparity between man and reality, between experience and expression, between awareness and conception, between mind and mystery. Thus the disparity of faith and creed is a major problem of the philosophy of religion.” (Heschel, 1955/2009, p.122)

[62] Which brings us closer to God, contemplation or action? The Talmud says that the rabbis were debating this question: “Which is greater, study or action? Rabbi Tarfon answered, saying: Action is greater. Rabbi Akiva answered, saying: Study is greater. All the rest agreed with Akiva that study is greater than action because it leads to action.” (Kiddushin 40b) “Think like a man of action, act like a man of thought.” (Henri Bergson) Robert A. Johnson (Transformation: Understanding the Three Levels of Masculine Consciousness, 1993) points out that Faust, as a man of books and academia, caught in his ivory tower of a life of contemplation and study, has to join the world of action in order to transcend his condition and complete his spiritual life journey. Johnson explains, though, that someone governed by an orientation towards action must take the opposite journey towards reflection in order to find spiritual completion. Herman Hesse’s ‘Glass Bead Game’ (Das Glasperlenspiel, 1943) also explores these ideas.

[63] Shapiro (Ethics of the Sages: Pirkei Avot annotated and explained, 2006, p. 36) writes: “You are the way God writes symphonies and bad cheques.” What is created is a sign pointing back towards what creates; what we do and make is evidence of ourselves, and we are the evidence of God, who created us. It is a terrifying responsibility to be the hands of God, and not one that we can avoid. Even acts of omission are still acts. The question is not whether or not we have power, but how to use the power that we clearly have entrusted to us.

[64] Grammatically, the Sh’ma contains no questions. But God’s existence is the question that demands an answer from humanity. God initiates the relationship. As Heschel wrote: “This is the mysterious paradox of Biblical faith: God is pursuing man.” (Heschel, 1955, p.136) Each of the questions posed in this midrash is intended to help remind the reader to respond personally to God’s call. God is saying, “I am talking to you.” And we have to decide whether we will say, “I hear you. Hineni – here I am.”

[65] Waskow, in his reworking of the Sh’ma writes: “make [these words] the pattern through which you see the world.” (Waskow, Arthur ‘Shema’ in Seidner-Joseph, Elyse (2009) ‘Chanukat Habayit (Dedicating a House): Eco-Kosher Ritual of Dedication to Healing the Earth & Home’).

[66] Ps 16:8 shviti adonai l’negdi tamid “I will keep God before me always.” The wearing of tefillin and tzitit physically reminds that there are principles that should guide our thoughts and actions. If we do not use these traditional forms, are there other creative ways we could achieve the same end? Heschel wrote in God in Search of Man: “God is of no importance unless He is of supreme importance.” (p.153) If that is true, finding ways to keep God at the centre of our attention, and thereby our lives, is central to the religiously oriented life.

[67] V’limad’tem ‘teach’ can also be read as ulamad’tem ‘learn’. We can teach only what we have learned first, and whatever we have not been taught, we must teach ourselves.

[68] Primo Levi, in his poem entitled ‘Shema’ puts a new and powerful overlay on the traditional text, linking the teaching of the children, with the consequences for humanity if we do not. It is a post-Shoah clarion call, waking us up with a stark curse: “Engrave them on your hearts / When you are in your house, when you walk on your way, / When you go to bed, when you rise. / Repeat them to your children. / Or may your house crumble, / Disease render you powerless, / Your offspring avert their faces from you.”

[69] The rabbis taught that the best way to express love of God is to conduct ourselves in a way that others, inspired by our example, come to love God themselves. (Sifre Deut 32)

[70] B’neichem ‘sons’ has long been extended to mean ‘children’ (see notes 51 and 52 in Shema Pt 1); in the Torah, it is also used to indicate any disciples or students. The plural ‘your’ used here means that, even if as an individual adult or couple we do not have our own children, we share in a collective response-ability towards the generations after us.

[71] God charges us with a religious obligation to continue the wisdom lineage. From this, future generations can receive not only learning and guidance, but also encouragement (root: French ‘coeur’ heart) to trust in God. Ps 78:5ff “God established a testimony in Jacob, ordained a teaching in Israel, charging our ancestors to make them known to their children, that the next generation might know them, even the children yet unborn, and in turn tell them to their children, so that they might put their confidence in God, and not forget God’s great deeds, but observe God’s commandments.”

[72] l’dabeir can be a present participle that means ‘reciting them’ (ie teach the principles through recitation, and also internalise and ‘own’ them through speaking them), and also an infinitive meaning ‘to recite’ (ie teach the children to recite, or speak about these principles).

[73] King David expressed his love for the Divine law: “Your laws are like songs [z’mirot] for me” (Ps 199:54). Rav Kook, (Abraham Isaac Kook, 1865–1935), the first chief rabbi of the British Mandate for Palestine, wrote: “Some sing the song of the Soul. Within their own soul they discover everything, their complete spiritual fulfilment. Others sing the song of the Knesset Yisrael, the community of Israel. They leave the restricted circle of the self, and bind themselves to the soul of the community. They sing her songs, feel her pain, delight in her hopes, and contemplate her past and her future. Others allow their souls to expand beyond the people of Israel. They sing the song of Humanity, revelling in the grandeur of humankind, the illustriousness of his Divine image. They aspire towards humanity’s ultimate goal, and yearn for its sublime fulfilment. And some reach even higher in the expanse, until they unite with all of existence, with all creatures and all worlds. With all of them, they sing the Song of the Universe.” (Rav Kook, Orot HaKodesh II:444)

[74] The Bible tells us that when the first man was created, God “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life [nishmat chayyim]” (Genesis 2:7). Onkelos* paraphrases the words nishmat chayyim as “the spirit of speech.” This resonates with an idea running through Jewish tradition that it is the facility of speech that distinguishes humans from the animal, vegetable and mineral world (the other three levels of Creation); the human is middabeir, the ‘speaker’.

[75] This midrash reads ‘sitting’ and being ‘at home’ as symbols of safety, when we feel safe and confident, amongst family, friends and supporters, able to play to our strengths, and express ourselves without risk. Reb Zalman Shachter-Shalomi, in his reworking, interprets the next phrase in the Sh’ma (uv’shoch’b’cha uv’kumecha ‘and when you lie down and when you rise up’) as “Even when you’re depressed or when you’re elated.”

[76] Why in this midrash, ‘when you feel’ and not ‘when you are’? This is because all separation and distinction (havdalah) exists at the level of ordinary reality (and therefore at the level of our perception), but not from God’s perspective in olam haba (the ‘world to come’, or ‘world beyond human perception’).

[77] In relation to this verse, Rashi teaches that sometimes our allegiance to God and Torah principles is challenged because we are not in an environment where these are expressed, or we are not amongst our own but ‘in exile’; Rashi advises that in such circumstances, it is equally important to maintain the principles of the Sh’ma. Job is an example of this faithfulness (emunah) when everything seems stacked against him, and there is an allegory given in midrash where a king exiles his wife, but instructs her to continue wearing her royal jewelry so that she will remember who she is when she is summoned to return as his queen.

[78] “When you lie down and when you get up” translated here in the multi-layered phrase ‘throughout your days’ can be seen as two merisms. First, lying down (at the end of the day) and getting up (in the morning) can signify a 24 hour period, and by extension, 7 days of the week. Second, the evening of our lives (death, when we lie down permanently), and the morning (birth, when we rise for the first time) can signify our whole lives.

[79] ‘Doorposts of your home’ has been interpreted here as our most intimate, immediate, here-and-now experience of the ‘moment’; ‘gates’ moves from the dimension of time to one of space, or whenever we move to the next situation, person or activity.

[80] There is a teaching that the word olam ‘world’ and he’elem ‘concealed’ share the same word root, because God has concealed God-self in every aspect of the world and life, and it is our task to search for God in all things.

[81] With our God-given capacity for da’at ‘knowledge, we are able to make distinctions, to separate and differentiate. The reality of separation and difference (havdalah, see also note 76), and our ability to differentiate, makes this a moral world where we can distinguish what is more right, or more wrong. At the same time, Waskow writes movingly of meditations on the meaning of ‘God is One’ (adonai echad), the Sh’ma’s opening. He invites us to remember this at thresholds, when we think there is difference between “the risky world and our safe homes”, between “the world of life and the world of death”, between “the poison we feed to earth and air and water” and the poison they return to us. He warns we must beware assuming God disappears at the “boundary of our own cultures and communities”, and we should not “assert one thing is certain, inside my skin I know what’s what but everything outside me is mysterious and alien”. . “… everything carries the same scent, the dance of the impossible and the hint of what is true.” Vaughan-Lee, Llewellyn (1999), The Circle of Love, The Golden Sufi Center, California, p.26

[82] L’ma’an ‘in order that’ is a reminder of the conditional nature of covenant, expressed by the v’hayah ‘if .. then’ opening of this second paragraph of the Shema.

[83] This midrash uses the word humbly to link two important ideas. First, we are advised by Micah (6:8) to “walk humbly” with our God. Second, the root of the word ‘humble’ and ‘human’ is the Latin humus, meaning ‘earth’, so our ‘humility’ and ‘humanity’ link us to the earth, just as our adam nature connects us to ha-adamah ‘earth’ in this verse of the Sh’ma.

[84] Literally, ‘your days will be multiplied’.

[85] Adapting Heschel’s statement about God (see note 66), the Sh’ma is of no importance to religious or ethical life unless it is of central importance. The opening of the Sh’ma addresses Israel. This midrash has expanded this to mean all ‘who struggle with God’, and thereby all humanity, so that the lessons of the Sh’ma can be considered and taken to heart by all of us, whatever our cultural or religious background.

[86] The wording in this midrash is deliberately ambiguous. Originally, the text was probably intended to indicate specific favour to the Jewish people. Many modern liturgies, especially non-Orthodox ones, are uneasy with the nationalistic overtones of this and the implication of a God who plays favourites between nations; some religious Zionists sometimes prefer the original text. The reader is invited to make their own decision about whether to see these words as universal or directed to only the Jewish people.

[87] What could it mean to say ‘as long as the heavens are over the earth’? This midrash, perhaps boldly, suggests a new interpretation. In the act of Creation, God creates distinctions, including the ones between light and darkness, and heaven (non-dual reality) and earth (dual reality). Perhaps in this sense ki-y’may ha-shamayim al ha-aretz means ‘as long as heaven and earth are separate’, which could be paraphrased as ‘until the day when heaven and earth become one’. From this perspective, the final phrase may be alluding to the hope of the redemptive Messianic age, referred to, for example in Isaiah 25:7-8 “And He will destroy in this mountain the face of the covering that is cast over all peoples, and the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death for ever.” On a darker note, we cannot presume that it is God’s intention that either humanity or the earth should last forever. In the last 10 years, the Geological Society of London and the Geological Society of America have adopted the term Anthropocene to describe the period in the earth’s geological history during which human activities that have had a significant global impact on the Earth’s ecosystems. The earth may lose its atmosphere (losing its ‘heavens’). John Baez, a maths and physics lecturer, notes “1.1 billion years from now – The Sun becomes 10% brighter than today. The Earth’s atmosphere dries out.” Baez, John (2008) ‘A Brief History of the Universe’.

[88] “And then everywhere will be called Eden once again.” Judy Chicago, ‘Untitled Poem,’ in Peace: A Dream Unfolding, Editors Penney Kome & Patrick Crean (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1986), p. 223. “And then all that has divided us will merge / And then compassion will be wedded to power / And then softness will come to a world that is harsh and unkind / And then both men and women will be gentle / And then both women and men will be strong / And then no person will be subject to another’s will / And then all will be rich and free and varied / And then the greed of some will give way to the needs of many / And then all will share equally in the earth’s abundance / And then all will care for the sick and the weak and the old / And then all will nourish the young / And then all will cherish life’s creatures / And then all will live in harmony with each other and the Earth / And then everywhere will be called Eden once again.”

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