Loving God with all our heart, soul, and excellence

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, March 10, 2010

The opening words of the Shema, the Hebrew affirmation of singular loyalty and devotion to God taken from Deuteronomy 6:4–5, call for a commitment in attitude, abilities, and life itself. Graphic by Warren Harbeck

There is a beloved prayer in Judaism that is fundamental to Christianity, as well. As we approach the Jewish Passover and Christian Holy Week, I’d like to reflect on what Jesus called “the first and greatest commandment” and what Jews call simply the Shema.

Shema (pronounced sh’-MAH) is a Hebrew word meaning “hear.” It is the first word in the ancient text of Deuteronomy 6:4-5, the beginning of Judaism’s great confession of faith. In the Tanakh, the Jewish Publication Society’s translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, it reads:

“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.”

Devout Jews recite this prayer morning and night, as well as in formal liturgies. It is an affirmation of their covenant commitment to live according to the Torah, the laws of God given through Moses.

The importance of taking to heart these words is spelled out in the verses that follow. They are to be taught to one’s children, recited everywhere and everywhen, bound to one’s person, and affixed to the doorposts of one’s house.

I was overjoyed a while ago to come across a modern musical interpretation of the Shema on YouTube, the “Ecstatic Shema Yisrael Chant.” The stirring chant echoes in my mind daily now, a reminder of the faith and values that I, a Christian, share with my Jewish brothers and sisters.

As I’ve contemplated the Shema, five points have stood out.

First is the call to an uncompromising acknowledgement of the One who alone is God — we shall have no other gods in our lives.

Second is the key phrase, “You shall love the Lord your God.” But how can we be commanded to love God? The answer to that is to understand this is not about feelings, but about covenant. This is closer in meaning to the phrase “true patriot love” in Canada’s national anthem. This is about allegiance, fidelity, and commitment.

Which brings me to my third, fourth and fifth points. The nature of this loyal commitment is to engage heart, soul and might.

“Heart” clearly suggests our affections, our longings – our “holy longings,” as coffee companion and theologian Ron Rolheiser calls it. In God alone hearts find their true rest. That longing is so strong that the psalms plead with God, “hide not your face from me.”

“Soul” gets down to the ultimate bottom line: not even our physical survival is more important than our allegiance to God. The rabbis of old knew well that there could come a time when we might be called upon to lay down our very lives because of our uncompromising loyalty to God. The list of such martyrs is long.

“Might” has special interest for me. Rabbinical tradition understood this to refer to one’s material wealth. If we say we love God, then we must put our money where our mouth is.

I personally believe such “might” includes areas of excellence of all sorts, and not just wealth and entrepreneurial endeavours. The Olympic competitors can be loving God with their disciplined achievements; scholars and writers, too, with their clarity of thought and word; and political and social leaders, with their calling to guide people wisely.

Yes, I’m grateful for the gift of the Shema. For me, it is a guiding light and moral mandate for engaging our true humanity.

© 2010 Warren Harbeck

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