By Rabbi Boruch Boudilovsky
Towards the end of Parashat Ekev (Deuteronomy 11, 13 – 21), we encounter a very familiar passage. It is familiar because it is the second of three passages recited twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening.
Although these biblical passages, along with several blessings before and after them, are recited within the context of daily prayer, they are actually a separate unit.
This unit, referred to as Keriat Shema, contains the fundamental ideas of our faith. In fact, the obligation to recite it twice a day is a biblical one.
We are also biblically obligated to attach physically the first two of these three passages to our doorposts (the commandment of Mezuzah).
These two passages are inserted, along with several others, into Phylacteries (Tefillin) as well.
The nature of the biblical commandment of Keriat Shema (reciting these passages twice a day), is not limited to a study exercise, in which we review the theological building blocks of Judaism.
Such a review falls under the category of Torah study, which we also — but not only — engage in, when we recite Keriat Shema.
This prayer extends beyond the cognitive and intellectual exercise of Torah study, and enters the realm of profound and binding meditation as well. In discussing the order of these passages the Mishna (Tractate Berachot, Chapter 2, Mishna 2) provides us with an understanding of the very nature of this meditation.
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korchah said: “Why does the portion of Shema (the first passage) precede that of Vehayah Im Shamoa (the second passage) In order that one should first accept upon themselves the yoke of Heaven’s sovereignty, and afterward accept upon themselves the yoke of the commandments.”
These biblical passages compel us to noble submission. When reading these passages we accept the Jewish challenge of living in accordance with the idea of an external obligator. When reciting Keriat Shema, we meditate on what it means to be Jewish and how that continually affects our lives. Twice a day, explains Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha, we first accept upon ourselves the general yoke of Heaven’s sovereignty by reciting the first passage.
Then, when reciting the second passage, we accept upon ourselves the yoke of all the detailed commandments.
Combined together, these passages facilitate our ceaseless striving to humbly accept God’s sovereignty. All that we do each day is then guided by the commitment made before at the end of the day.