The readings for this Sunday may be found on the USCCB website:
This Sunday’s readings present us with a foundational passage from the Torah, a passage one might even take to be its keystone. Commonly known as the Shema Yisrael (Hear, O Israel), this passage from Deuteronomy is the beating heart of Moses’ exhortation to the Israelites as they are waiting to enter into the promised land. With time, it came to be widely regarded as the beating heart of the whole Torah: the “first and greatest of all the commandments.”
Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone!-Deuteronomy 2:4-5
Therefore, you shall love the Lord, your God,
with all your heart,
and with all your soul,
and with all your strength.
We hear this exhortation repeated verbatim twice in this Sunday’s readings, which is appropriate for at least two reasons. First, the immediate context itself explicitly directs the people to repeat the words over and over again to various people, at various times, and in various ways:
Take to heart these words which I command you today. Keep repeating them to your children. Recite them when you are home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up. Bind them on your arm as a sign and let them be as a pendant on your forehead. Write them on the doorposts of your houses and on your gates.-Deuteronomy 2:6-9
But it is also appropriate to hear the Shema repeated because of the nature of the exhortation itself, which implores Israel to “listen” or “heed” a message of utmost importance. As a parent of young children, I appreciate Moses’ insistence upon redundance here. It sometimes seems as if kids have an aural filter that silences the first two or three iterations of any directive. Such resistance to instruction becomes less overt as we grow older, but it never entirely disappears. We never stop needing to hear, to be reminded of, to be redirected toward what is most important, especially as what is most important so often tends to dissolve into the background of our busy lives.
In the field of ethics, and especially in the teaching of ethics, there is a tendency to descend into the realm of particular actions so as to clarify what one should do or not do in this or that situation. We often hasten to the question of how broad ethical principles or commitments work, or what they look like in the course of one’s daily life. This tendency is certainly understandable, but it brings with it the danger of losing sight of the overall vision of the moral good that particular actions should embody. Deuteronomy 6 seamlessly combines these two “levels” of ethics in a way that reflects the beauty and fidelity of Jewish life to the present day. Notice that Moses does not mention inscribing these words upon monuments or plaques or political constitutions. Rather, the people are to repeat the words in the most immediate contexts of their everyday lives: in the presence of their children, in their beds, at the threshold of their fields and dwellings, upon their very bodies.
The commandment itself is not about any particular action, but rather about the overarching commitment that should inform every action. In this sense, it is more of a “meta-commandment,” and precisely for that reason it is even more important to hear it again and again and again. We need to be reminded of the “first principle” governing our action not just in the classroom or in the sanctuary, but in the most concrete dimensions of our daily lives. We need to ensure the proper orientation of the whole lens of our moral vision before we begin to zoom into the particular situations and quandaries that so often preoccupy us. If you want to see Jupiter up close, you have to make sure the whole telescope is pointed at the right quadrant of the sky.
Yet Jesus adds something essential to the Shema in answering the question about the greatest of the commandments. He quotes another mitzvah from Torah: Leviticus 19:18, which commands that “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” It is not uncommon to hear interpreters remarking upon the “horizontal” and “vertical” dimensions of love coming together in this conjunction of commandments. Such a conjunction is built into the Decalogue, after all: the “two tablets” that comprise the ten commandments given to the people in Exodus 20 (and Deuteronomy 5) are neatly divided between duties to God and duties to neighbor. If the Decalogue encapsulates all of the 603 laws that follow it, then it only makes sense that the love of God and neighbor would sum up the whole of Torah.
But I think it is St. John who brings out the deeper reason behind the union of these two commandments when he combines them into the one and only commandment Jesus gives to his followers: “love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34; 15:12). In their full integration, the two love commands do not actually have two distinct objects or orientations. There is no distinct “vertical” and “horizontal.” It is not as if one has to look down from God in order to look across to one’s neighbor. In fact, there is no looking up without looking across. We do not first see God and then recognize him in the face of our neighbor; rather, it is only in the face of one’s neighbor that it is possible to see God. Perhaps that is why God himself assumed human form and took on a human face: to direct us where we might see him in this world.
God did not become one of us in Christ to lead us to any insight or destination beyond himself. Surely one of the reasons we are called to look to a human face to receive salvation is because there has never been any other path to the kingdom of heaven. Surely one of the reasons God forbade any image of him is because His image was always waiting to appear to us in the faces of our neighbors. To “hear” the Lord in the midst of our daily lives does not require us to look away from our neighbor; it is precisely in hearing their cries as He hears them, and responding to them as He responds to them, that we remember who God is and who we are.