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The Shema, Our Emotions, and Our Commandments

Devarim (Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22 )

by Rabbi Boruch Leff

Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, of blessed memory, was once walking in the corridor toward the Main Study Hall (Beit Midrash) of the Ner Israel Rabbinical College, when he suddenly approached one of his students. "Shimon, how many times have you said Kriat Shema (Recitation of the Shema) today?"

Not knowing what Rav Yaakov was getting at, Shimon meekly responded, "Twice. Once last night and once this morning." (This is the fulfillment of the obligation
mentioned in Chapter one of Talmud Brachot.)

"Only twice?" asked Rav Yaakov, "I have said it many more times than that! You are satisfied with accepting the Yoke of Heaven only twice a day?"

The Recitation of the Shema certainly does solidify one's acceptance of God as King. It discusses loving God, sacrificing for God, Torah study, God's Oneness, tefillin, mezuzah, and many more facets to serving Him. This is unmistakably a major reason why we feel a close connection to the Shema prayer more than other commandments and rituals. But there must be an underlying spiritual reason for the Jew's emotional connection to the Shema. Even the most secular Jew is usually familiar with the first verse of the Shema: "Hear, O Israel, the Lord, Our God, the Lord is One." In fact, as necessity warrants, especially during these terror-prone times in Israel, if someone wants to know if a stranger is an Arab or a Jew, people will generally ask him/her to recite the opening verse of the Shema.

We begin life with the Shema. From our earliest days, our parents said it with us as they put us to sleep in our cribs. We were trained to say the Shema as soon as we were able to speak (as per the law in Rambam, Talmud Torah 1:6). We say it (at least) twice daily in our prayers. And in the end, we die with the Shema on our lips.

We recite every day, "Fortunate are we, how great is our portion, how precious our heritage. Fortunate are we that we rise early and stay up at night, morning and evening, proclaiming the Shema!"(Morning prayers, Siddur). What is the root of our basic love and enthusiasm for the Shema? An insight into Parshat Devarim and really the entire Book of Devarim, will help us understand this phenomenon.

"THESE are the words that Moshe spoke to all of Israel."(Devarim 1:1). We know that the entirety of Torah was said by Moshe to all Jews. It wasn't that Moshe taught parts of the Torah to a select few students and they taught it to the Jewish people.
Rather, Moshe taught the entire Torah to all (see Talmud Eruvin 54b). Yet, this verse implies that it was only the Book of Devarim that was spoken by Moshe to the entire nation. What does the verse mean?

The following approach will explain the verse and also offer the method with which we must study the whole Book of Devarim. The previous four books of the Torah are God's direct words. God told Moshe exactly what to write in the Torah, to the letter. Even when we encounter a conversation between two people, such as Abraham and Pharaoh, the words of their conversation are a part of Torah. They weren't Torah when Pharaoh or even Abraham actually spoke them, but later on, when God chose to quote or summarize their conversation, their words became Torah. God told Moshe, word for word, what to write in the Torah concerning Abraham and Pharaoh, and their
conversation, as God dictated it, became part of the Torah.

The Book of Devarim works this way as well. Whereas the words of the previous four Books of Torah were determined by God without any of Moshe's involvement,(he was merely God's recording secretary) Devarim is not like this. Moshe had deep, profound, instructive thoughts that he wished to share with the Jewish people, just before he would pass on to the next world. After Moshe shared these thoughts with the nation, God decided to use Moshe's speeches as part of the Torah. He then instructed Moshe to write down and make his speeches Torah.

This is what the verse means, "THESE are the words that Moshe spoke to all of Israel"(Devarim 1:1). Moshe spoke these words first and then God told him to make them a part of the Torah. This is unlike the previous four Books where Moshe simply taught what God told him to say.

So when we study the Book of Devarim, we must learn it on two levels:

1. What was Moshe, the greatest of all prophets thinking when he said the words that he did? What exactly did he mean?

2. What are the eternal, absolute values and lessons that we derive from Moshe's words, now that God has decided to transform his words from a regular, human statement into a section of God's Torah?

In this fashion, it would appear that Devarim requires more effort and understanding in study than the other four Books of the Torah. In every verse, we must analyze based on these two levels which does not exist with the other Books.

This insight applies to the various commandments discussed throughout the Book of Devarim. There are some commandments that are repeated in Devarim, yet others are mentioned for the very first time. Many commentaries are bothered with what the common thread is tying together these commandments that are only mentioned in Devarim. Surely, God had already taught these commandments to the Jewish people before Moshe described them, so why did God write them in His Torah as if Moshe was discussing them for the first time?

The answer is that all of the commandments mentioned in the Book of Devarim have more of a connection to a human element. Yes, God had already commanded them but He wanted Jews studying His Torah to encounter them as if Moshe were stating them. The effect is that these directives are not only 'God decreed' but were brought into existence, in terms of being made into a part of Torah, by a human being, in Moshe. They only became included in the Written Torah when God told Moshe to record his own speeches as part of Torah.

So what is the root of our basic love and enthusiasm for the Shema? All of Devarim's commandments have more of a natural, innate, emotional connection with us than other commandments from the previous four Books of the Torah. This, of course, includes the Shema, and our special connection to the Shema, as a nation, would not have existed without the human element present in the way in which it was given to the Jewish people.

The next time we say the Shema, and we feel those special warm feelings toward it, we'll know why.

And when we study Devarim, let's try to uncover the human element and emotional connection that is present for many more lessons and commandments. Bearing in
mind the approach to Devarim discussed here, we can become emotionally attached to them just like we are to the Shema.

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