Now this is the commandment—the statutes and the ordinances—that the Lord your God charged me to teach you to observe in the land that you are about to cross into and occupy, so that you and your children and your children’s children, may fear the Lord your God all the days of your life, and keep all his decrees and his commandments that I am commanding you, so that your days may be long. Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe them diligently, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may multiply greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, has promised you.
Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 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.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Hear. Listen. Obey. Shema. The most famous line from the First Testament. The Shema as it is commonly known in Jewish circles. The Shema is the guiding principle of faith and life for the Hebrew people. It is the Hebrew word for hear, listen, obey and it comes in a directive form to us, the hearers and readers. It is telling us to hear, to listen, to obey. Tell your children, say it in the morning and at night, put it on your hand, your forehead, and your doorposts. This is absolutely central.
This commandment comes to the Israelite people as a reminder that as they enter a new phase of life from slavery to freedom, a journey of liberation about how and who they are to center in their lives. It affirms God’s central place in their lives, it summarizes the commandments which have come before, and it makes a commitment to their God. The challenge of the Shema is to make this faith in the God of liberation central to everything.
It tells us to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, all of our soul, and all of our might. Here we are challenged to love with all of ourselves. So how do we do this?
We start with the heart, lebab in Hebrew, which can also be translated as mind or understanding. It is the Jewish word that encapsulates our internal knowledge, our muscle memory, our gut instincts. We start by devoting our lives to God and learning the muscle memory of faith.
Then we move to the soul, nefesh, which is actually a word we often misunderstand. In Hebrew the word nefesh actually means throat. When it was translated to Greek in the 2nd and 3rd centuries it was changed to the Greek word for psyche. This disembodiment of the word has led many to think of the soul as completely separate from the body when in fact they are intricately linked. To me the embodiment of this word can be seen when we are giving something our all like at a sports game or concert and we wake up the next day with a sore throat from all the energy and passion we have poured out. How can we love our God and live our faith with this throaty soul filled love?
And the final word might, meod, really keeps us connected to our bodies. We love God in the here and the now, with all that we are. Our faith is not just intellectual or charitable, but filled with the everyday living of our bodies. A fully embodied love.
We can see the consequences of trying to love God in a disembodied futuristic way very clearly in our world. We actually see it all around us when people do not think about how their real life actions affect real people’s real lives. We can see it in Flint, MI. We can see it with raging wildfires and tropical storms and COVID variants. We can see it with the violation of indigenous rights and climate change through the Line 3 pipeline and many others! We can see it with police brutality and transphobia and white supremacy. We do not need to look far to see the consequences of removing our heart or our soul or our might from loving God. When we disconnect the things that make us human and only think about that future heaven then we miss loving God with our full selves as our text challenges us today.
The word used for love here is the Hebrew word ahab. And it can also be translated to desire or to breathe after. Now this is an interesting phrase. We can think of the breath coming from the throat or our soul. We can think of the romantic comedy where someone pines after another with a meaning filled sigh of deep breath. To me it encapsulates a yearning that covers the wholeness of our person. When you start to love someone or something, we say terms like fall in love or head over heels. These phrases show us just how much love, ahab, is connected to our whole selves. Our full bodies.
The Shema, this call to love the Lord our God with all that we are, is central to Jewish identity and is labeled the greatest commandment by Jesus shows up over and over again. This idea that loving God requires our whole self, heart, soul, and strength or our understanding, throat, and body. This central theology and practice invites us to reject a false piety that focuses on separating ourselves from the world but instead shifts our thoughts and lives toward an embodied and enfleshed love for the world, for our neighbors, and for our God.
Jesus perfectly encapsulates the Shema as God literally became flesh to be with us and to love us. This embodiment is not something that we can disconnect from as Christians and followers of Jesus. It is something we get to engage with everyday. So as you go forward this week into the worlds that we live in, the schools, the works, the online zooms, the feeding programs, the visits, the phone calls, the meals remember that the Shema calls us to be fully present with all that we have in our relationships, heart, soul, and might. To not wait for the future heaven but to bring heaven to earth in a real, earthy, and embodied way. And the only way to do this is to follow the path of Jesus and live an embodied love here and now, heart, soul, and might. Amen.