Shema Yisrael, Hear O Israel” appears in the prayerbook during every morning and evening service. It is an excerpt from Deuteronomy 6:4. Besides constituting part of the full verse – “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one” -the phrase “Shema Yisrael” appears several times in the Book of Deuteronomy.
It can be found, for example, in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo. One of the major themes of the portion is binding the Israelites to God’s covenant. The Torah offers a litany of blessings for accepting the covenant and curses for rejecting it. As the blessings and curses are introduced, Moses and the priests say, “Silence! Hear O Israel! Today you have become the people of the Lord your God.” (Deuteronomy 27:9) Both “Shema Yisrael” verses imply obedience to God, but the one in this week’s portion seems to place a special emphasis on possession. Simply stated, we belong to God.
The commentator Rashi takes note of this verse and mentions it later when he comments on the last section of the Torah portion. The covenant, finished at the end of chapter 28, must now be sealed with the people. Moses says that the people have not fully appreciated all that God has done for them, using this poetic imagery: “Yet the Lord has not given you a heart to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear until this day.” (Deuteronomy 29:3) No wonder Moses was so often frustrated with the people. He kept saying “Shema Yisrael,” and they did not have ears that could hear.
But chapter 29 represents a turning point, as Rashi explains. Parashat Ki Tavo takes place on the day the Israelites start listening. On this day, they begin to understand that they are God’s possession and truly take ownership of their obligation to the covenant. For proof, Rashi peeks ahead to chapter 31:9, where Moses writes down the Torah and gives it to the priests. Rashi says that the people protest this act of elitism. They don’t want the Torah left in the care of a privileged few who belong to Moses’ own tribe; rather, they want the Torah given to everyone so that in the future, no group can make a stronger claim to it. According to Rashi, Moses rejoices at the protest. It was this incident that inspired him to say, “Today you have become the people of the Lord your God.”
The people who have rebelled against Moses so many times before wage yet another protest. But this time, the nature of the protest is fundamentally different. In the past, the protests were about what Moses ought to give to them, such as water, or how they were burdened by the decisions Moses had made, like bringing them to suffer in the desert. In this protest, however, they want more responsibility. At last, 40 years after standing at Mount Sinai, the people seem willing to bear the burden of the Torah.
How fitting a lesson at this time of year. With the High Holy Days just over a week away, we should be looking at ways to bring blessing to our lives by better fulfilling the commitments we have made. We should resolve to take on new responsibilities as a way to strengthen our relationships with God. As we hear the shofar blown on Rosh Hashanah, perhaps we can imagine the difference our ancestors felt between all those years they did not have ears that could hear, and the day they first heard the words “Shema Yisrael” clearly.