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The Shema: A Model of Moral Development

The prayer's three paragraphs seem unrelated, but they lead us on the steps of a spiritual journey.

There is no prayer more iconic within Jewish life as the Shema. Originally appearing in Deuteronomy, its words are recited numerous times, publicly and privately, throughout the course of each day. Its majesty lies in its sheer simplicity as the credo of the Jewish people: There is only one, true God.

In the prayer book, the Shema is followed by three distinct and sometimes mystifying paragraphs. While many worshippers may be familiar with most of the words, they probably give little thought as to why these specific words are linked with the Shema.

The first paragraph is in fact the most familiar and also the most logical in its inclusion: Veahavta et Adonai ElohechaYou shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.

Just as these words follow the opening line of the Shema in the prayer book, they are also the very next verses in the Torah. The connection between the oneness of God and our obligation to devote our lives to follow Him are forever juxtaposed in our recitation.

The next paragraph seems to go in a completely different, and even troubling, direction. On the surface, the words represent typical biblical expressions of obedience. Love God. Heed the commandments. Serve God with all your heart. If we do these things, we read, then God will provide all that we need. We’ll have rain in the proper season and an ample harvest of grain. There will be an abundance in the field for our cattle and we will eat to contentment.

Then the text takes a dark turn. Don’t stray, we are told, and don’t worship false gods. For then God’s powerful wrath will be directed against you. There won’t be any rain. The earth will not yield its produce. You will soon disappear from the land.

Why couldn’t we have been left with positive words of hope and benevolence? What was the value in this overt threat of punishment for disobedience? God is effectively communicating to us that our motivation for performing the commandments and expressing our devotion is the threat of annihilation. Do what I say, God tells us, and no one gets hurt.

This primitive message of reward and punishment does not resonate so well with modern ears. In fact, in some recent editions of the prayer book — most often used in Reform and other progressive congregations — omit this paragraph in its entirety. But this misses a prime opportunity to delve into human nature and explore why people act justly or resist the urge to follow a more destructive path.

Ask any child why they do homework each evening and they will not explain the value of reinforcing what they learned that day. More likely, they’ll say something akin to, “Because if I don’t, I’ll get in trouble.”

Ask any adult why they pay taxes each year, don’t expect to hear a lesson on civic responsibility and the need for all of us to equally bear the burden of supporting the government. Instead, like the young student, they’ll likely answer, “Because if I don’t, I’ll get in trouble.”

The words of the Shema are not simply an anachronistic call for blind obedience. Rather, they are an accurate reflection of the fact that good and moral behavior must sometimes be motivated by the possibility of negative consequences. Humanity cannot live solely on the honor system. We aim for the day when doing the right thing is its own reward. But in the meantime, we work for a paycheck and we obey laws that carry a penalty for disobedience.

The Shema concludes with a third paragraph, a seeming non-sequitur which strangely instructs us to attach tzitzit fringes to the four corners of our garments. Seeing these fringes serves as a reminder of all of God’s commandments. Just as we surround ourselves with these tzitzit, so too do we symbolically live within the bounds of God’s mitzvot.

These three paragraphs — love God with all your heart; obey God’s commandments or perish; see the tzitzit and remember God’s commandments — seem at first glance to be three unrelated texts. But really, they work together to brilliantly represent humankind’s moral development. Each paragraph of the Shema leads us to the next step of a spiritual journey.

First, we proclaim that we recognize just one true God and that He should be the object of our devotion. Next, we strive to obey God’s teachings, but realize that we will stray from the path and incur negative consequences, both individually and collectively. Finally, we structure our lives so that we are surrounded by God and His commandments every minute of the day, ultimately living a life a life of mitzvot because God is — in the Shema’s final words — Adonai Eloheichem Emet, the God of truth.

We want the prayers that we recite to reflect our thoughts and experiences and the Shema links the words to emotions that all of us can relate to. We seek to do the right thing for its own sake, but realize that it’s easy to fall short. We are always searching for reminders of God’s presence around us, and the Shema tells us that this can be as simple as looking down at what we’re wearing.

Cantor Matt Axelrod has served Congregation Beth Israel of Scotch Plains, New Jersey, since 1990. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and a national officer of the Cantors Assembly. Cantor Axelrod is the author of Surviving Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah: The Ultimate Insider’s Guide, and Your Guide to the Jewish Holidays: From Shofar to Seder. You can read his blog at mattaxelrod.com.

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