That Which Is Not Saidby Rabbi Mark Smilowitz
Twice a day we say the three passages which comprise the Kriat Shema. Of all the passages in the Torah, these are the only three that we are obligated to recite daily. What is unique about these three passages? Why, of all the possible choices, were these three singled out?
Our Sages say that the first paragraph is important for its acceptance of Hashem as King, the second is important for its acceptance of the commandments, and the third is important for its mention of the exodus from Egypt (see Berachot 13a). However, while the Rabbis used this categorization to explain the chronological order of the paragraphs—first comes acceptance of Hashem Himself, then His commandments, then gratitude for saving us—there might be another explanation as to why the first two paragraphs were selected for daily recitation.
It should be noted that there is another Jewish ritual that requires the recital of the first two paragraphs of the Shema. The Mishna (Sotah 41a) says that during the seventh year of the Shemittah cycle, when all the people would gather in Jerusalem for the Hakhel ceremony, the king of Israel would read aloud from the book of Devarim. He would read a little from the beginning of the book, a little from the end, plus two passages from the middle of the book, which are identified as the first two paragraphs of the Kriat Shema. What is the significance of these two particular paragraphs for the Hakhel ceremony?
Rav Mordechai Sabato has noted that these two paragraphs, Shema and Vehaya Im Shamoah, serve as bookends for the entire unit between them. If we examine all the topics in between Shema, from last week’s Parsha, and Vehaya Im Shamoah, from this week’s Parsha, we discover that they all have something in common. For certain, they are all Mitzvot Bein Adam Lamakom, commandments between man and Hashem. However, there is more that links them. Here is a basic outline of all the topics in this unit:
1. Do not forget Hashem to stray after foreign gods.
2. Do not test Hashem.
3. Teach your children to keep the commandments and revere Hashem.
4. Do not be absorbed by the surrounding nations and abandon Hashem.
5. There is great reward for following Hashem’s laws
6. Do not fear the warring nations; rather, trust that Hashem will help us achieve victory.
7. Remember to thank Hashem for all the goodness He has provided.
8. There is severe punishment for abandoning Hashem.
9. Make no claims of righteousness to Hashem; He owes us nothing except for the promise to the Patriarchs and maintaining Justice.
10. The only way to please Hashem is by following all of His commandments.
11. Hashem constantly keeps His watchful eye out for the inhabitants of Israel.
Note that some common themes that pop up in these Parshiot are the land of Israel, the requirement to love Hashem, and the importance of keeping the commandments. What emerges is that this entire section, beginning from Shema and ending with Vehaya Im Shamoah, is about basic issues of faith in Hashem. They might be called the a-b-c’s of our religion, the foundation, or the creed. In these passages are the fundamental elements of our relationship with the Almighty.
Perhaps when we read the first two paragraphs of the Shema, both daily and on the seventh year pilgrimage, we are meant to think about not only these two paragraphs, but also all of the ideas between them. Thus, the Kriat Shema is our way of saying to Hashem, “If we had time, we would read all the pieces in the Torah which state our commitment of faith to You. Please accept the first and last passages as a symbolic statement of all that is said in between.” If we view Kriat Shema in this manner, then this prayer is not the final word in stating our faith, but rather the first word. It is up to every Jew who recites the Shema to think beyond what is actually read, and add nuances of commitment and faith that are not stated outright, but are implied.
I would like to give thanks to Rabbi Menachem Leibtag from whom I first heard this idea.