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October 15, 2010
The Second paragraph of the Shema: What’s it all about?
Rabbi Charles Simon

I remember as a teenager becoming insensed after reading the second paragraph of the Shema and announcing to my parents that I couldn't believe in a God who taught that my personal behavior had a direct correspondence to rain and climate change. “And if you worship other Gods the Lord will be aroused against you, and He will shut up the heavens so that there shall be no rain, and the ground shall not yield her fruit.”

The early leaders of the Reform Movement and the Reconstructionists had similar difficulties and initially chose not to include this paragraph in their prayer books. Today that paragraph is optional in Reform liturgy.

I am going to try to unravel this paragraph and to do so I need to provide you with a historical perspective.

  1. The Shema was standardized as a fixed text by the 2nd century C.E. i.e. the time of the Mishna. It is obvious that the three paragraphs neither follow a chronological order nor reflects the theology of the people living in Talmudic/Roman times. If they did, the order of the paragraphs would have been the same as the one we find in the Torah --Numbers 15, followed by Dt. 6 and then Dt. 11.
  2. Thematically, the order of the paragraphs does makes sense. We are first told to love God all the time, and then cautioned what will happen if we stray and finally we are assisted with memory devices, tzitzit, mezuzah and tefillin which help us remember not to forget.

The second paragraph speaks of reward and punishment -- not an easy concept for people living in modernity to accept. It is important to realize that the tenses change from second person singular in the first paragraph to second person plural in the second. I can understand that I should love God all the time as it says in paragraph number one; but who is the author referring to when he says “you” (plural) in the second paragraph? Who is the “you”? Let's explore the historical context and see what clues it offers.

The book of Deuteronomy is the oldest book in the Chumash. In 621 B.C.E., according to 2 Kings and the book of Chronicles, an ancient book of law was discovered in the Temple. It was brought to King Josiah who immediately issued a series of reforms most of which are reflected in Deuteronomy. Sixty years earlier King Hezekiah also attempted a number of Reforms many of which were replicated by Josiah. Hezekiah's reforms obviously didn't succeed but Josiah's did. Historians refer to Josiah's reforms as the Deuteronomic reforms. The three main highlights of DT are:

  • The centralization of worship in Jerusalem.
  • The replacement of a system of tribal elders with priests
  • The linking of a festival of unleavened bread with one of national liberation.

Imagine how the people who could not afford to worship and offer sacrifices in Jerusalem must have felt when they were suddenly told they could no longer sacrifice at their local shrines? Imagine the emptiness they must have experienced! How could they pray? Perhaps in order to cushion the people's emptiness and loneliness, the author of this paragraph intended a specific message to those who had just had centuries of following the guidance of their tribal elders and worshipping at local shrines torn away from them.

Perhaps the author of this paragraph spoke in the plural because he was speaking to the local people, the farmers, and cobblers and local artisans who couldn't afford to go to Jerusalem and offer sacrifice? Perhaps the second paragraph of the Shema said “listen if you worship me, and I know you are still going to use those local shrines, do it in my name! If you do that, I will still grant you dew and rain and prosperity but don't go back to the old ways and stray! Bind my words on your hands and on your hearts!”

It is possible that the second paragraph of the Shema reflects a level of sophistication and understanding that we hadn't previously considered. People behave differently in cities than in rural areas but they can still be bound together and united by core beliefs. Perhaps the Shema evinces more flexibility than a young Charles Simon had originally envisioned!

My teenage years ended more than forty years ago. Now when I read the second paragraph of the Shema I am conscious of global warming and realize my role, my responsibility in assuring that the dew and the rain continue. Today the words of the Shema speak to me as an individual and as a member of larger community that shares one planet. If I worship one God, then I must accept the responsibility of being part of a larger global community and do my share by appreciating its complexity, preserving the balance of nature thus ensuring its continuation and the well being of its inhabitants.

This week's commentary was written by
Rabbi Charles Simon,
Executive Director of the FJMC and author of
"Building A Successful Volunteer Culture: Finding Meaning in Service in the Jewish" Jewish Lights Publishing
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