God spoke all these words, to respond (Shemot 20:1)
In parsha Yitro, Moses brings the Israelites to the foot of Mount Sinai to receive G-d’s commandments. Rather than transmit the commandments through Moses, G-d appears directly to the people. As Rashi points out, there is a difference between hearing commands from the mouth of a messenger and hearing them directly from the king. This is one of the very rare instances of a theophany in the Tanakh. G-d sends instructions to the people on how to prepare themselves to be in G-d’s presence. G-d orders Moses to create a boundary past which no one is to cross lest they die. Only Moses and Aaron are to approach the mountain. G-d then descends upon the mountain and appears to the Israelites as a pillar of smoke. G-d speaks to the Israelites, but what they “hear” exactly is the subject of much rabbinic debate.
What G-d “speaks” to the Israelites is the Decalogue, or as it is known in the vernacular, the Ten Commandments. One would think that the Ten commandments would be the most important words in Judaism. After all, following them makes Israel a nation of priests, and G-d spoke them directly to us. The commandments are foundational, but they are not central. The central statement of Jewish faith is the Shema:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God; the Lord is one. (Devarim 6:4)
We are commanded to recite the Shema twice daily: once in the morning and once again in the evening. We are even commanded to write the words of the Shema on our doorposts. There are no such requirements for reciting the Decalogue even once daily. Why the Shema? Why is the Shema considered the foundational prayer in Judaism? Let’s take a closer look.
The first thing we notice is that the Shema is a declarative statement. Unlike other prayers, it is not a question nor a supplication. When we recite the Shema, we are making a statement about who we are and what we believe. So now, let’s look at the words.
The first word of the Shema is “Hear.” The first word of the Shema is an imperative to pay attention, to be present. The beginning phrase, “Hear, O Israel,” specifies who is to hear. This call to hear is linked directly to the theophany at Sinai. Unlike every other theophany in Tanakh, at Sinai G-d did not speak to one individual but to the entire nation of Israel. The opening of the Shema is a reminder that we received the commandments not through a messenger, an emissary, or a prophet (even one as great as Moses): we received the commandments directly from G-d. However, what we “hear” in the Shema are not words from G-d, but words from a person.
The second part of the Shema begins, “The Lord is our G-d.” While linguistically similar to G-d’s first utterance at Sinai (“I the Lord am your G-d”), the use of the first person possessive pronoun rather than the second person, implies the speaker of this statement is not G-d. There are two explanations for this. First, it is a fundamental aspect of Jewish prayer that we praise G-d not for G-d’s sake (G-d does not need us to remind G-d how awesome G-d is) but for our own. Like the slaves in Egypt, we need reminding. The second explanation is the rabbinic understanding that Torah is not in heaven but on earth. In other words, G-d’s utterances have been given to us by G-d: they are now ours to interpret and to live. Putting the declaration of G-d’s lordship into first person makes it ours. We are not merely repeating G-d’s words declaring the Lord, G-d; we are affirming that the Lord is, indeed, our G-d.
We now come to the final statement within the Shema: “The Lord is one.” These four words are what makes Judaism different from all other religions at the time of its inception (as well as from many religions today). Judaism did not create monotheism. Prior to the appearance on the scene of the Israelites, there were ancient cultures that believed in only one god. What made Judaism unique in the world was not that we believe in one god, but that we believe in a god who is one. In other words, unlike other cultures of the time, the Israelites did not require many gods because the G-d of Israel was sufficient. Everything emanates from our one G-d, so there is no need for any other gods or “supernatural” forces.
Another distinction between Judaism and other religions can be found in what is not in the Shema’s final statement: there is no definitive article prior to the word “one.” Jews do not believe there is only one god; we believe in a G-d who is one. We willingly acknowledge the existence of other gods. They just don’t work for us. Even our G-d acknowledges the existence of other gods. Why else have a commandment, “You shall not have any other gods before me”? Why else have so many other commandments forbidding us from praying to our G-d in the ways other peoples pray to theirs?
It has been said that the commandments are the content of our covenant with G-d, but the Shema is our signature on the contract. In pre-literate times, a vassal lord proclaimed allegiance to a king by hearing and then repeating the king’s offer of lordship. Twice daily, Jews accept G-d’s lordship by repeating the Shema,
Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God; the Lord is one.