By Rabbi Doug Zelden, Torah Columnist
“Hear O Israel, The Lord Is Our G-d, The Lord is One.”
These famous words, The Shma, are known as the watchword and proclamation of our faith. We read these words along with the second reading of the Ten Commandments in last week’s Torah portion.
This week’s Torah portion Eikev includes the second paragraph of the Shma which traditionally is recited twice a day in our daily prayers and at bedtime, and leaves much to discuss and learn about. This section is also included as part of the Mezuzah Scroll and as one of the four sections of the Tfillin scrolls. However there is a verse elsewhere in this week’s Torah portion that also stands out, and that I’d like to focus on.
In Deuteronomy, Chapter 10 Verse 12 it states: “And now O Israel, what does the Lord your G-d ask of you? Only to fear the Lord your G-d…”
Rather unusually, this exhortation is preceded by the word ve’ata – “and now” – which certainly gives it a special sense of immediacy. Why is it, though, that there is a need of such an expression of urgency in the Almighty’s request that we fear him – particularly as we don’t generally find this type of expression in connection with most other mitzvot?
Some suggest that the expression has a different connotation and is in fact directed specifically toward the generation of the exodus – as if to say; ‘now that you have experienced the miracles of Egypt, the revelation at Sinai and the many miracles of the wilderness you are truly ready and able to be in awe of G-d.’
This is all well and good, but the unfortunate implication is that later generations who had not witnessed these events might very well be unable to achieve a proper sense of the divine power and majesty. This understanding not only limits the verse – but would also largely exempt the rest of us from its great charge and message.
Perhaps there is a message here of a much more universal nature. The well-known joke has it that when we come to shul and listen to the rabbi’s sermon, we always prefer to imagine that he is speaking to our neighbor, to the one sitting in the back row, or to virtually anybody other than ourselves.
Likewise, when the Torah here speaks of fearing Hashem, it is human nature to rationalize that it doesn’t mean me. After all, I seem to get by quite well without focusing on that ideology all the time; and for that matter what’s all this ‘fear’ stuff about anyway? Surely it is a concept for another place, another time and another person!
Thus, the inclusion of ve’ata – “and now” becomes highly relevant. Far from being an obscure mitzvah well beyond our reach and comprehension, here is a ‘foundation commandment’ addressed not only to you and me – but also to this very moment – to here and to now! Moreover, this word also sounds just like another common Hebrew word (the synonym “Ata” but spelled with the Hebrew letter alef, not an ayin) which immediately catches our attention; Ata – you (as in ‘yes, you!’).
Fearing G-d is really about living our lives with a sense of His omnipotence and omnipresence. The illusion, or rather the delusion, that we are in full control and answerable only to ourselves is as ridiculous as it is spiritually dangerous. Therefore, here is a mitzvah that we all need to ‘get straight’ before we can get anywhere.
And, far from being addressed to the person in the other row of chairs or in the house next door, this request of G-d is not only in the second person – it is also sent special delivery and marked urgent!
Rabbi Doug Zelden is the rabbi of Congregation Or Menorah in Chicago, chaplain at HomeBound Healthcare, and host of the weekly TV show “Taped With Rabbi Doug” (www.tvrabbi.com).