27 Jul PARASHAT EKEB: UNDERSTANDING THE FIRST TWO PARAGRAPHS OF SHEMA
Parashat Ekeb features the section known as “Ve’haya Im Shamoa” – the second paragraph of the Shema text which we recite each morning and evening. The first paragraph – “Shema Yisrael…Ve’ahabta” – appears in last week’s Parasha, Parashat Va’et’hanan. This is therefore an appropriate occasion to briefly look at the differences between these two Torah texts, and understand the significance of these differences.
These two paragraphs share a number of themes, such as the obligation to love Hashem, and the Misvot of learning and teaching Torah, Tefillin and Mezuza. There are, however, a number of important differences, such as:
1) The first paragraph is written entirely in the singular form, directed toward an individual, whereas the second paragraph is written in the plural form, directed toward the entire nation.
2) The first paragraph commands us to love Hashem “with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your assets,” whereas the second commands us to love Hashem “with all your heart and with all your soul” – without mentioning “Be’chol Me’odecha,” devoting all our property to Him.
3) The second paragraph elaborates on the reward which Hashem promises to grant us for properly observing the Misvot, and on the punishment which will befall us if we disobey His commands. All this is absent from the first paragraph.
The explanation for these differences might stem from a famous debate discussed in the Gemara, in Masechet Berachot. Rabbi Yishmael was of the opinion that a person should spend the majority of his day working to support himself and his family, as indicated in the second paragraph of Shema, which tells of the reward of agricultural prosperity and of the people working the fields to produce food. Of course, one must devote time each day and each night to study Torah, but, according to Rabbi Yishmael, it is expected, and proper, for one to spend most of his day working to earn a livelihood. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, by contrast, disagreed, maintaining that one should devote himself entirely to Torah learning, and rely on Hashem to care for his material needs.
The Gemara concludes this discussion by reporting, “Many did like Rabbi Yishmael and succeeded; [many did] like Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, and did not succeed.” The conclusion is that for the vast majority of people, Rabbi Yishmael’s prescription is the appropriate lifestyle to pursue, working to support oneself while devoting periods of time for Torah study. However, the small minority of elite scholars should follow Rabbi Shimon’s prescription, and spend all their time engrossed in Torah learning.
It turns out, then, that these are not two conflicting opinions, but rather two models which are appropriate for different groups among the Jewish People.
With this in mind, we can return to the two paragraphs of Shema. The first paragraph is written in the singular form, because it addresses itself to the rare, exceptional scholar who is able and willing to devote himself to fulltime Torah learning. It therefore commands him to love Hashem even “Be’chol Me’odecha” – with all his money, because he is expected to sacrifice opportunities for profitable work for the sake of Torah. The second paragraph, meanwhile, is written in the plural form, because it speaks to the majority of the people, the laymen, who are expected and encouraged to work to earn a livelihood. They are not commanded to love Hashem “Be’chol Me’odecha,” because they are expected to pursue gainful employment.
This also explains why only the second paragraph contains the warning of punishment for the violation of Hashem’s commands. The scholarly elite, who spend their days in the study hall, poring over Torah works to understand the divine wisdom they contain, do not, in all likelihood, require such a warning. They are fully submerged in sanctity, protected from the distractions, lures and temptations of the world. It is only those who are addressed in the second paragraph, the laymen, who need this warning. Engaging in the world, spending one’s time in the office trying to earn a livelihood, presents many spiritual challenges and pitfalls. And therefore, those whom the Torah speaks to in the second paragraph need to be warned to exercise great care and vigilance in withstanding the temptations of the world, in remaining faithful and committed to the Torah’s laws and values even as they spend their days involved in the pursuit of a respectable livelihood.