‘Remember not only to say the right thing in the right place, but far more difficult still, to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment’ ― Benjamin Franklin
Probably the most famous and important declaration of Jewish faith is expressed in the first line of the Shema: ‘Hear, O Israel! The Eternal One is our God, the Eternal One alone.’ (Translation is from JPS Tanakh, 1985, adjusted to make the language gender neutral)
The full text of the Shema contains three paragraphs. The first begins with Ve’ahavta: ‘You shall love the Eternal One your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.’ (Deuteronomy 6:5). When we open our prayer books, we do not always realise that the first paragraph directly follows the first line in the Torah text. The Orthodox version of the second paragraph, however, is taken from another place – Deuteronomy 11:13-21. It can be found in this week’s Torah portion Re’eh. The question I would like to ask is ‘Why did we choose to read the second paragraph from a different part of the Torah? Why didn’t we just continue to read from the end of the first paragraph?’ Perhaps, those who composed the order of the Shema deliberately decided ‘to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment’
Let’s have a closer look at the traditional text of the second paragraph (Deuteronomy 11:13-21):
If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the Eternal One your God and serving Him with all your heart and soul, I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late. You shall gather in your new grain and wine and oil I will also provide grass in the fields for your cattle and thus you shall eat your fill. Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and bow to them.
For the Eternal One’s anger will flare up against you, and He will shut up the skies so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce; and you will soon perish from the good land that the Eternal One is assigning to you.
Therefore impress these My words upon your very heart: bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a -symbol on your forehead, and teach them to your children reciting them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up; and inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates to the end that you and your children may endure, in the land that the Eternal One swore to your fathers to assign to them, as long as there is a heaven over the earth.
What is it about? The main themes are obeying God’s commandments, God’s anger and punishment for not following them and teaching children to endure the presence on the Promised Land. As Rabbi Silvia Rothschild put it: ‘It is a perception of God that is both childlike and horrific, a god without mercy who dispenses reward and punishment with machine like efficiency and no extenuating circumstances to be taken into account. Small wonder the Reform Movement had no desire to weight this paragraph with the same glory as its predecessor.’ (https://rabbisylviarothschild.com/tag/second-paragraph/)
Let’s imagine for a moment that the second paragraph is taken from the passage following the first paragraph and compare these texts.
The theme of obeying the commandments is also present:
Revere only the Eternal One your God and worship Him alone, and swear only by His name. Do not follow other gods, any gods of the peoples about you’ (Deuteronomy 6:13-14)
The theme of God’s anger for not following the ‘right’ way is also present:
for the Eternal One your God in your midst is an impassioned God lest the anger of the Eternal One your God blaze forth against you and He wipe you off the face of the earth. Do not try the Eternal One your God, as you did at Massah. Be sure to keep the commandments, decrees, and laws that the Eternal One your God has enjoined upon you. (Deuteronomy 6:15-17)
The theme of teaching children in order to endure the days on the Land is also present:
When, in time to come, your children ask you, “What mean the decrees, laws, and rules that the Eternal One our God has enjoined upon you?” you shall say to your children, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and the Eternal One freed us from Egypt with a mighty hand. […] Then the Eternal One commanded us to observe all these laws, to revere the Eternal One our God, for our lasting good and for our survival, as is now the case. (Deuteronomy 6:20-24)
The only theme which has no parallel with the traditional Shema is the one which immediately follows the first paragraph of the Shema:
When the Eternal One your God brings you into the land that He swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to assign to you great and flourishing cities that you did not build, houses full of all good things that you did not fill, hewn cisterns that you did not hew, vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant and you eat your fill. (Deuteronomy 6:10-12)
Perhaps the choice not to read this passage as a part of Shema is clearer now. It’s not a nice feeling to realise and be reminded of the fact that you inherit and possess flourishing cities that you did not build, houses that you did not fill and vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant. Perhaps it’s the part of human nature to filter the history and to leave unsaid the ‘wrong’ thing. However, I believe that the structure of the prayer book deliberately hints at the true intention. Perhaps it’s a good lesson for us when we listen to modern leaders and politicians to be reminded that all of us often ‘leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment’.
LBC rabbinic student
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.