“Shema Yisrael” “Hear O Israel”
~ Deut. 6:4, and the first two words of the greatest commandment, according to Jesus.
These two words are precious to every Jew, everywhere, and should be just as precious to every Christian. Morning and evening, observant Jews recite a prayer/creed/vow called the Shema. Composed of three scripture portions from Deut. and Lev., the Shema is a daily reminder of God and His teaching, and a prayer of commitment to live in obedience to God’s righteous covenant.
We Christians should remember that when Jesus was asked “What is the greatest commandment”, he answered with this first verse of the Shema. But there is a difference between what a Jew and a Christian understands when they hear “Hear, O Israel”, due to our limited knowledge of Hebrew. (That is, if the Christian even hears the first two words; after all, we tend to edit out things we feel don’t apply to us.)
The English language is a cornucopia, with 400,000-600,00 words. When you look up Hear in a thesaurus, you will discover a multitude of synonyms, most of which deal with aural input into the ear. However, the vocabulary of biblical Hebrew is limited; there are only 8,500 Hebrew words that make up the nearly 500,000 words of the TNK**. Therefore, Hebrew words often have much richer meaning with more implications carried in a word than would be implied in an English word.
Shema is one of these words, and has a wider, deeper meaning when used in the TNK.
Years ago, I was in a class were the teacher handed out a page of instructions for the class to follow, as a test. I remember that the first step was “Read the entire set of instructions.” I think the second one was to put your name at the top of the page, and there were different instructions, like numbering your page from 1 to 15, drawing 3 stars on line 9, and several other instructions along that line. The thing was that the last instruction said, “Put your pencil down after doing step 2.”
Most of the students read the first instruction, and then continued on, performing the tasks of each numbered direction as they read further down the list. There were two or three students in the class who put their pencils down and sat in their seats, waiting, while the teacher smiled, and hinted, “Be sure you read the directions closely.” Being one of the eager ones, I kept looking at the kids who were just sitting there, wondering why they weren’t doing the work. It was only when I got to the last line that I understood. This last line read, “Do step #1, then put your pencil down and wait for further instructions.”
They had read the instructions and done what they were supposed to do: read all the instructions, put their names on the paper, and wait. They “listened” and they “obeyed.”
“To Hear Is To Obey”
And that is the fuller meaning of the Hebrew word Shema. Remember that old “to hear is to obey” line from the movies? Yeah, that’s what God, through Moses, is telling the Israelites in Deut. 6. But the thing is that this same command is given to us today, by our Hebrew Lord. Asked, “What is the greatest commandment?”, He cites the Shema. He wasn’t asked, “What’s the greatest commandment up until now?”, or “What’s the greatest commandment for Jews alone?”.
No, the greatest commandment for all people begins with Shema, “Hear my words and do them!”, the message of the entire Scriptures.
We Christians think that we know better, that we are under a different covenant by which we don’t have to worry about being obedient all the time; after all, “Pobody’s nerfect,” we tell each other (don’t want to come across as too judgy or self-righteous.) We are under grace now and freed from observances of the Law. We are freed to live in Christian liberty, with freedom to fall down and get back up.
But what is it that God told the three disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration? “This is my beloved son, hear him.” (Lk. 9:35) (Just a reminder–while Luke wrote his gospel in Greek, God was talking to Hebrew-speaking disciples.) God told Peter, James and John to shema to Jesus. And that word carried the connotation of not just listening, but obeying Him.
“Obey Him? CSL, aren’t you pulling more out of the passage than is actually there? After all, Jesus instituted Christianity, which is based on believing Jesus, not obeying some laws, right?”
No, I’m not going beyond the text, and no, Jesus didn’t institute a new religion. He was a teacher of the religion, the Covenant that He grew up in. In fact, Jesus said that He didn’t come to destroy the Law, but to fulfill it, (establish it, in better translations.) When He told the teachers that not the least yodh or kotz (jot and tittle) would pass from the Law before Heaven or earth be destroyed, He was upholding the permanence of God’s law (Mt. 5:18).
So, Hear Him? How?
By being a true disciple, a follower of Jesus in deed, not just word. Jesus quoted the prophet Isaiah to demonstrate how religious people can be so…, well, religious, but not be disciples:
… this people draw near with their mouth
and honor me with their lips,
while their hearts are far from me,
and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men,
I’ve written a series of posts asking why Jesus was a rabbi. The answer is simple: Jesus, as a Jew, as a rabbi, was the complete embodiment of God’s revelation for mankind. At the end of the second chapter of her Sitting At The Feet of Rabbi Jesus, Lois Tverberg writes:
The mission of a rabbi was to become a living example of what it means to apply God’s Word to one’s life. A disciple apprenticed himself to a rabbi because the rabbi had saturated his life with Scripture and had become a true follower of God. The disciple sought to study the text, not only of Scripture but of the rabbi’s life, for it was there that he would learn how to live out the Torah. Even more than acquiring his master’s knowledge, he wanted to acquire his master’s character, his internal grasp of God’s law…. That’s what the rabbi-disciple relationship was all about. From ancient times, God had told his people: “Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy.”
It’s one thing to want to live a Christian life because you have been convinced of the correctness the precepts and principles of Christianity. It’s a completely different and separate thing to realize that you are morally lacking and need to acquire the character of Jesus. All too often we reduce Christianity to the acceptance of a set of intellectual propositions when, instead, it is the transformation of a life.
So the answer to the question of what it means to hear Jesus is to seek His character in our daily lives. Just as He lived a life of godly holiness, we shema to Jesus by seeking to follow His life in our lives.
** Tanakh is the Jewish/Hebrew term for the portion of the Bible that Christians call the Old Testament, Genesis through Malachi. I am going to try to use Tanakh in my articles from now on, because I believe that the term “Old Testament” is a barrier to communication and understanding between Christians and Jews.