Hear, Israel, YHWH is our God, YHWH is one. Deuteronomy 6:4
Hear – The Hebrew verb shama means both “to hear” and “to obey, respond.” Moses does not call the people to listen to his words. He calls the people to do what the words say. In Hebrew, I do not hear unless I respond. The same double sense of this word is applied to God when the Psalmist cries out for God to hear his plea. Of course God hears, but it is of no value unless God responds. To hear is to do something about it. To hear is to act upon the words spoken.
Since Hebrew is a dynamic, active language, this is exactly what we would expect. Torah study isn’t about recitation or regurgitation. It’s about transformation. If my life isn’t changing because of these words, then I haven’t learned anything. I haven’t heard. It is completely inadequate to store away information, even theological information, in my cognitive vault. Action is the only measure of successful listening.
Only a moment’s reflection verifies that this is what we really want with our own words. What is the point of speaking, speaking, speaking if no one acts upon our proclamation. Do we really think our children are listening to us when their behavior ignores our admonitions? Does our boss believe we have incorporated his direction if we don’t make any changes in our actions? Do you think God is interested only in a checklist of correct information? Of course not! If we expect more than intellectual assent, don’t you think He does too? The problem was never about hearing. It was about responding.
This raises a more difficult issue. Now that we know God expects us to act on His words, the next question is “What does He say?” Heschel is absolutely right. Belief is not about deriving divine principles or producing heavenly abstractions. To believe (a verb) is to remember. It is to remember what God did and what He demands. If my life is determined by my response, I must know what God is asking of me. The most important question in all of my life is this: “What does God demand of me?” If I can’t answer that question, I am not able to hear for hearing is the response required by the question. That’s why the Shema is not Deuteronomy 6:4. Deuteronomy 6:4 is the introduction to the demand. It is the call to respond, but it is not the content of what I am to hear. Shema yisrael, YHWH Eloheinu, YHWH ehad is not what I must do. It is the framework that surrounds what I must do. Deuteronomy 6:4 establishes the reason why I must hear and obey. There is a God. His name is YHWH. He is the only God. And the fact that He is God is the reason why I must respond to His demands.
It is useless to read His words without committing myself to do what they require. It is worse than useless. It is blasphemy, disobedience and sin. It is pointless to call myself a follower and ignore the behavioral changes He demands. It is worse than pointless. It is self-defeating. So, begin with the invitation to His demands, but do not stop there. Don’t open the envelope and leave the letter inside. It’s time to take up what follows.
Topical Index: Shema, hear, obey, respond, Deuteronomy 6:4