For the past five Lents, I have started and ended each day by reciting the Shema (“hear,” in Hebrew), an ancient Hebrew prayer. Starting around Deuteronomy or so, the Israelites took on this daily ritual, in keeping with one of the Lord’s commands (I assume that contemporary Orthodox Jews do the same).
I don’t come from a Jewish background, and reciting the Shema isn’t a typical Lenten practice, nor is it specific to this season. And yet, I find myself coming back to it each year, in fact, I look forward to it. Right now, I’d like to reflect on why that is.
To start, let’s take a look at this prayer, which is made up of three chunks of scripture:
4Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 5Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. 6These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. 7Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 8Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. 9Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.
– Deuteronomy 6:4-9
13So if you faithfully obey the commands I am giving you today – to love the Lord your God and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul – 14 then I will send rain on your land in its season, both autumn and spring rains, so that you may gather in your grain, new wine and olive oil. 15 I will provide grass in the fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be satisfied.
16Be careful, or you will be enticed to turn away and worship other gods and bow down to them. 17Then the Lord’s anger will burn against you, and he will shut up the heavens so that it will not rain and the ground will yield no produce, and you will soon perish from the good land the Lord is giving you. 18Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. 19Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 20Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates, 21so that your days and the days of your children may be many in the land the Lord swore to give your ancestors, as many as the days that the heavens are above the earth.
– Deuteronomy 11:13-21
37The Lord said to Moses, 38“Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘Throughout the generations to come you are to make tassels on the corners of your garments, with a blue cord on each tassel. 39You will have these tassels to look at and so you will remember all the commands of the Lord, that you may obey them and not prostitute yourselves by chasing after the lusts of your own hearts and eyes. 40Then you will remember to obey all my commands and will be consecrated to your God. 41I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt to be your God. I am the Lord your God.’”
– Numbers 15:37-41
The purpose of the Shema is simple. God has ordained a nation of people to be His own, and to be like Him. Since they are fallen and prone to further corruption (and…Jesus hadn’t lived, died, or risen yet), the Israelites need to follow a bunch of laws so that they can be set apart and holy like God (Leviticus 19:2). This prayer then, does two things. First, it describes what will happen if the people uphold God’s commands, and what will happen if they do not. Secondly, it also lists several unusual but practical lifestyle tricks to help the people remember who they are, who God is, what He’s done for them, and how to live as His people.
The Shema is extremely redundant, and honestly, its practicality makes it a little boring (i.e., it’s not really as awe-inspiring or humbling or whatever as other scriptural prayers like the Psalms). But I think that’s exactly the point. God understands people, and He knows that people need to be entirely re-formed in order to be like Him. And substantial re-formation does not happen by experimenting and thinking outside the box all the time – it happens by fundamentally changing one’s habits, gritting one’s teeth, and practicing tirelessly. The Shema isn’t sexy, because drastic lifestyle changes aren’t sexy.
But I love this unsexy prayer. I love forcing my tired eyes open each morning and night as I read through it. I love that by the second or third week of Lent, I have it all but memorized. I love how it basically recites itself throughout the day, whenever I encounter something that triggers it. I find its monotony soothing, especially during Lent. As I reflect on the fallenness of the world and my own mortality, I love having this sturdy, stable, simple prayer to begin and end each day with. I love the promise of grass, new wine, and olive oil – at the end of winter, these things sound so abundant and satisfying – a glimpse of spring, Easter, and the coming Kingdom.
And, this might sound strange, but during Lent, I like to be reminded of a time when there was no resurrected Christ – only a distant and abstract promise of some coming Messiah, and a whole bunch of laws to cling to. It’s strange and scary to think of a time when people had very limited access to God, when they clung to His words for (sometimes literally) dear life, and when their lifestyles were so fundamentally shaped by their faith. Dwelling on these things helps me to anticipate the Risen Lord a little more fiercely, and makes Easter so much sweeter.