Hear, O Israel. The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.
This comes from Deuteronomy 6 and is both a commandment and prayer typically referred to as the “Shema” (Hebrew for “hear”/”listen”). In Matthew 22 and Mark 12, Jesus is asked point blank what the first and greatest commandment of Jewish law is, what the most important thing in the world is, and the Shema is his answer (with “love your neighbor as yourself” from Leviticus 19 sprinkled in. “On these two commandments hang all the law and prophets,” he says.
The Jewish people made a practice of saying this prayer twice a day, since Deuteronomy goes on: “Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (Deuteronomy 6:6-9) To love God with every ounce of heart and soul and might isn’t something we master all at once. It will take time and practice. So we must recite these words, every morning and evening, talk about them, write them on our hands and doorposts. The Shema must have its chance to sink as deeply into us as possible.
What if we took Jesus’ words as a kind of invitation: to come to this prayer in Deuteronomy 6, see what’s most important and allow it to guide us into 2024?
The Shema does not begin with the imperative to love, but to listen. Before the greatest commandment tells us what’s most important, it reminds us to be listening, to pay attention. Our world tends to not reward those who listen the best, but those who speak the best, the loudest, who speak with authority and wit, those who make their presence known, who have big and magnetic personalities. However, throughout scripture, God often seeks out the opposite of these people to accomplish his purposes. And when Jesus is asked what’s most important, his answer begins with, “Listen.”
Listening is of course impossible without being quiet, without bringing tasks and activities to a halt. So the Shema, being designed to be prayed twice a day, assumes that silence is a regular part of our lives. The Shema assumes we’re going to stop talking, that going to be still, that we’re going to put our phones down, that we’re going to intentionally create space in our hearts and minds for a word from God to come find us. The Shema is a kind of miniature sabbath, a moment to hit the pause button on everything else and pay attention to the presence of God in our midst. All working, all talking must take a quick break because it’s time to listen. Real, attentive listening is difficult. We’ll never run out of ways to distract ourselves if we want. That’s why Jesus’ most important thing starts by telling us to turn off all the noise so that we can hear something from God.
The Shema invites us into a life completely preoccupied with loving God and being loved by God, a life in which love for God and attentiveness to his presence and voice are the beginning and end of everything we think and say and do. Let’s accept that invitation.