Oz Torah: Torah reading – Va’et’channan.


The Shema is part of this week’s Torah reading.

Paraphrasing a statement of the Anglo-Jewish scholar Israel Abrahams, we can say that the Shema proclaims the major Jewish belief, that God exists and is unique; the major emotion, to love God; the major duty, to speak of God at all times; and the major characteristic, to have homes dedicated to God as symbolised by the mezuzah.

We do not address the Shema to the world, however, but to our own people –

“Listen, Israel, the Lord is our God, the One Lord”.

The Shema is a call to every Jew to be a believing and committed Jew.

It is not that any Jew can be denied their own freedom of conscience, but that being Jewish is more than earthly and ethnic. Being Jewish is spiritual and ethical, not just tribal and national. It’s a distortion to leave God and spirituality out of Judaism.

It’s hard to be a Jew, but it’s good and fulfilling. It’s hard to lead a religious life, but it’s harder not to.


“Shema Yisra’el”, “Listen, Israel”, uses the name Israel in the sense of the people descended from our forefather Israel, i.e. Jacob. Unexpectedly perhaps, Israel is also one of the names of God.

Saying the Shema with the Jewish community of Novi Sad, Serbia. credit: www.chabad.org

Possibly it derives from the phrase, “Yashar E-l”, “The Divine Upright One”. According to Rabbi Yannai in the Jerusalem Talmud (Ta’anit 2:6), God had such love for Israel that He adopted the people’s name for His own.

Whatever the origin of the idea, the Shema speaks to God. We tell Him that whatever happens, we will still believe in Him. No enemy can separate us from Him. Not even God can separate us from Him.

In the long literature of Jewish suffering, there is a passage that says,

“God, You seem to do everything You can to stop us believing in You. But we warn You, God: nothing You do will make us give up believing in You!”


Chapter 5 of D’varim repeats the Ten Commandments, which first appear in Sh’mot chapter 20.

Between the two versions there are some – generally minor – linguistic changes. One change is found in the preliminary section, in verse 5, which speaks of God’s “word” (singular), where the first version of the Decalogue has the plural, “words” (Ex. 20:1).

Maybe the change has no real significance, but maybe it does. It could indicate that there are two ways of viewing the Ten Commandments – as ten separate rules, each one important in itself, and as one overall total message.

In the second case we see the Ten Commandments as interconnected, all part of one whole.

This indicates that when a person says,

“I keep the Ten Commandments”,

they are saying two things – one,

“I live by each individual command”,

and two,

“The Decalogue is a total statement to which I pledge my whole commitment, without ifs, buts and howevers”.


What I am going to describe is unlikely to happen in a Jewish context, but it’s a problem just the same.

It has really happened that, called upon to open a meeting with prayer, a (non-Jewish) minister feeling impelled to sound modern has started a prayer, “Dear God, as You read in the paper this morning…”.

The nearest Jewish equivalent I can think of is an occasion when Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev called all the townspeople together to the town square and said, “There is an announcement I want to make!”.

They all thought they were going to hear of some dramatic happening, hopefully good news… but who could tell?

So they assembled at the appointed place at the appointed hour and the rabbi stood up before them and said,

“There is an announcement I want to make! The announcement is… there is a God!”

He didn’t need to tell God Himself or refer the Almighty to the daily paper; after all, God was well aware of His own existence, and in Berditchev they are not likely to have had any daily papers for God or anyone else to read.

The Berditchevers were probably rather taken aback and even let down by what the rabbi did say, not because they were unbelievers but because belief in God was so natural that no-one needed to tell them what they already knew for certain. So why all the fuss and drama?

Levi Yitzchak probably meant to say,

“Don’t just rely on the Bible and the Siddur to tell you there is a God – look around and above, look into your own hearts, ponder on your own lives, and that way the Almighty will not only be the God of your fathers but your own God too!”

Any modern rabbi would say the same, but with two differences – his audiences and his source references.

His audiences are not going to be all religious people but people who often need persuading. His source references are not going to be what happens around and above us and in our own hearts and lives; the rabbi today will not tell God to read the paper but he will tell his audiences to watch the news and to study world events.

They will discover ample bad news, but they will also see amazing evidence of God working directly and indirectly in human deeds and achievements.

Heeding the rabbi’s advice, many will feel impelled to echo the words of the Shema in this week’s Torah reading and say,

“Hear, O Israel! There is a God, one, unique God!”

What does “Hear, O Israel” mean? It means, “Gather together: there is an announcement I want to make… There is a God

Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem. Rabbi Apple blogs at http://www.oztorah.com

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