We say the “Shema.”
We’re taught when to say it.
We’re given some commentary on it — the most obvious being that we worship one god rather than many, without using an idol.
That’s what we’re taught as children. But unless we make a personal effort to continue learning, that’s where our understanding of the “Shema,” and the purpose of our saying it, stops.
Stopping at that level is like learning to read and never getting beyond “Where the Wild Things Are.” It’s a good book, even a great one, but — there’s so much more!
For a long time, I tried to equate saying the “Shema” with using a mantra in meditation. It seemed to me that declaring G-d’s Oneness (or Presence, at least) should somehow bring us to experience it, as a mantra does in meditation.
Beyond saying it, I’ve certainly read a fair share of commentaries about it. Good commentaries, written by brilliant minds.
Yet — I didn’t find that that saying the “Shema” settled the mind and drew the attention to the Infinite, as does a mantra. Nor did I find that commentaries added depth to saying the “Shema,” even if they added depth to thinking about it.
But over the centuries, saying the “Shema” has had a profound meaning for Jews. Why is that?
Thinking on it, I came to feel that the “Shema” should reflect more than an intellectual understanding, even if supported by contemplation. It should reflect an actual attitude that we take towards our daily life-experience.
We should be looking at all the things that happen to us in light of the “Shema.”
There are certainly degrees of this; different levels.
But our meditation shouldn’t be on the “Shema” alone. It should be on our life experience as viewed from the fact of there being only one G-d — only one power over all that happens.
We should “learn” our own lives as if each was a book of Torah or Tanakh; as if G-d is as present and active in the moment-to-moment events of our lives as in those of Mosheh or Mordechai.
Every moment is a moment of self-offering to G-d; wherever we are, whatever we’re doing.
Call it “The Shema Attitude.”
How did we come to say the “Shema” at all?
The words themselves are from Torah, but don’t appear there as a “prayer,” “poem” or affirmation. They don’t even really appear together. The kohanim would recite it as a mental preparation for doing the sacrifices during the day. It was their “kavannah,” as it were. If you notice, it appears in the liturgy — the prayer service — before the morning and evening Amidah. The Amidah represents the communal offering that was done at the beginning and end of each day. When we say the “Shema” followed by the “Amidah,” we’re emulating the priestly form of worship in the Temple.
But if we think of “worship” as the single moment of our offering a bull or saying the Amidah alone, we’re missing the point. The feeling of worship should extend from that moment into all the moments of our day. In all things, at all times and places, we’re worshiping, whether we know it or not.
Moment-to-moment, we’re each writing our own book of Tanakh.
That has always been implicit in Judaism, it has been made decidedly explicit by the Ba’al Shem Tov and others.
When saying the “Shema” changes the way we look on life, making us see everything as worship, we’ve begun to say it in truth.
And by the way — when we get to that level, reading commentaries can lift us even higher!