The most important section of this week’s Torah Portion, Va-et’chanan, are the words of the Shema:
שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ יְהֹוָה אֶחָד׃
Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad.
“Hear O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is One.”
That the Shema would contain the most important words in any Torah Portion which it might appear should come as no surprise. These are the watchwords of our faith, the self-defining, single most important value for our people over these past 3500 years. We are the people who worship the One God of Heaven and Earth. What other collection of words might be more precious to us or have had more impact on the world.
And yet, this week’s portion also includes the Ten Commandments, a code of justice and righteousness known the world over and adopted by people of many faiths as their own. But there is a reason why we recite the Shema in our services everyday; why we say the Shema in the morning and at night; why we roll slips of parchment with these words into boxes on the doorpost of our homes; why these are the last words we are meant to say.
There was once a time, more than 2000 years ago, when the Ten Commandments played that central role in the life of our people. Replacing them with the Shema was a thoughtful choice, based on the belief that no list of commandments, however short or long, could answer the question why we should follow these rules.
Choosing the Shema as the watchword of our faith meant directing ourselves toward our relationship with God, as partners in the building of a better world. Shema Yisrael – One commandment that encompasses them all.