In our readings for this Sunday, Nov. 4, Catholics are presented a great opportunity to appreciate Jesus in his Jewish context. In the First Reading, from Deuteronomy chapter 6, Moses gives instructions to the people prior to their entering the Promised Land. While not a major passage for Christians, in fact it is a foundational text for Jews. “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone! Therefore, you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength. Take to heart these words which I enjoin on you today.” (Deut. 6: 4-6) These verses form the first part of a Jewish prayer called the Shema that is recited at their morning and evening services and also before going to sleep. Designed to remind the people of God’s kingship, the importance of the commandments, and God’s role in the exodus, it is often the first prayer Jewish children learn and is meant to be their last words before death. The remaining two parts come from other biblical texts.
Jesus’ familiarity with this prayer is evident in the passage from Mark’s Gospel that we’ll hear, where one of the scribes asks Jesus which is the first of all commandments. Jesus replies with the Shema verses stated above, but he adds a second statement, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” As Christians we may have the impression that Jesus presents a new commandment to replace the rest, which then distinguishes the eventual Christian community from Judaism. Actually, Jesus’ second command here comes from Leviticus 19:18 and was equally well-known to Jews though in a different context as Leviticus is a book of laws and rules for the nation. A little later in Leviticus 19, further instruction elaborates the definition of neighbor and mirrors Jesus’ words. “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt; I the Lord am your God.” (Lev. 19:34) We see in our Gospel passage from Mark 12: 28-34 that Jesus and the scribe concur about the importance of these two commands to love God and love neighbor, although these lines are left out in Matthew’s and Luke’s versions of the story.
The Jewish Annotated New Testament edited by Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler is an excellent resource for deepening understanding of Jesus’ Jewish roots.
The following contemporary version of the Shema was composed by Marcia Falk, a Jewish poet, painter, and scholar. I find it quite beautiful and recite the first four lines as the opening of my daily prayer. This prayer is part of Falk’s collection The Book of Blessings: New Jewish Prayers for daily Life, The Sabbath, and the New Moon Festival.
Shema: Personal Declaration of Faith
Hear, O Israel —
The divine abounds everywhere
and dwells in everything;
the many are One.
and its mysterious source
with all my heart
and all my spirit,
all my senses and all my strength,
I take upon myself
and into myself
to care for the earth
and those who live upon it,
to pursue justice and peace,
to love kindness and compassion.
I will teach this to our children
throughout the passage of the day —
as I dwell in my home
and as I go on my journey,
from the time I rise
until I fall asleep.
And may my actions be faithful to my words
that our children’s children
may live to know:
Truth and kindness
peace and justice have kissed
and are one.
Photo by OpalMirror via Flickr under a Creative Commons license