Hearing the Words: From Devotional Practice to Ethical Living
Mission Training Center of Concordia University Irvine
As I began writing this on March 28, 2020: the president of the U.S. was considering imposing a strict quarantine on NY, NJ, and CT; schools, restaurants, libraries, and places of worship all over the nation had begun to close their doors; and the US Navy hospital ship Comfort was headed from Norfolk to New York City to aid in caring for the expected onslaught of patients suffering from COVID-19. One month later, though stay-at-home orders still existed in most states, Comfort was on her way home and governors were making plans to re-open certain parts of their state’s society and economy. With most draconian regulations lifted and vaccines offering new freedoms, one thing is still clear more than a year and a half later: we have spent more continual time in our homes than ever before in our lives. And, we assume, this unexpected era of pandemic will be talked about for decades. Or maybe it won’t.
In a March, 2020 New York Times opinion piece, David Brooks answered the question about why our own parents and teachers never taught us about the Spanish Flu of 1918. His answer: shame. Shame that the ill were left to die alone, that volunteers did not come forward to care for infected children. I had at first wondered whether we might come through this season with some similar sense of shame. Today, as hospitalizations and deaths decline and our days-at-home are drawing to a close, I ponder how we’ve spent those long hours. While our synagogues, mosques, churches, and schools were closed, did this season of enforced time within the walls of our homes become a spiritual and moral resource? Or have we squandered the gift of time we’ve been given?
Moses’s words to the Israelites as they were about to exit the wilderness and enter the Promised Land offer a context in which to view our pandemic isolation as an opportunity rather than as an encumbrance and, hopefully, as a foundation for establishing an ethical framework for life both within and without our household’s walls.
Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day. Impress them upon your children. Recite them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up. Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead; inscribe them on your gates. (Deuteronomy 6:4-9)
Therefore impress these My words upon your very heart: bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead, and teach them to your children—reciting them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up; and inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates—to the end that you and your children may endure, in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers to assign to them, as long as there is a heaven over the earth. (Deuteronomy 11:18-21)
These words of Moses beckon with simplicity, yet profundity as they move through a trajectory from devotional listening which internalizes faith; to intentional communication of faith to the next generation so that they, too, hear the words of the Lord; and, finally, toward an ethical framework that emerges from internalization of the divine-human covenant.
Devotional Practice which Internalizes the Faith
Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.
Whether you prefer the above translation or the more traditional “Hear, O Israel. The Lord our God, the Lord is one,” the words come as a wake-up call to focus on God’s being and on his actions on our behalf. The verb shema (“hear,” “listen”) lifts the mind’s focus from the mundane to the transcendent, from the temporal to the eternal. These words—thick with meaning and oft-repeated—envelop the Mosaic covenant, for this Jewish credo is ultimately about relationship with God. “Love the Lord,” I’m commanded. A rational mind immediately counters, “You can’t command love!” And yet, this particular command is disarmingly invitational, for God’s salvific actions continued to reveal his being—his character—to the nation he had rescued. As the psalmist Asaph reminded the people centuries later, God had:
ordained a teaching in Israel,
charging our fathers
to make them known to their children,
that a future generation might know
—children yet to be born—
and in turn tell their children
that they might put their confidence in God,
and not forget God’s great deeds.
The confidence in him that future generations would display depended not on his commands, but on his faithfulness to them throughout their history. In his commentary on the Shema, one Christian commentator writes that in reflection upon these words and “by knowing the path of life set forth through the commandments, the people would discover for themselves the way in which God’s love for them was shown.”
Elizabeth Shanks Alexander might agree, for she explains that for the observant Jew, “the recitation of the Shema verses served as a ritual mechanism by which the practitioner could incorporate the biblical text into the self just as one incorporated biblical text onto the body when one wore tefillin.” Shanks quotes Marc Hirshman to explain, “For at least some of the Jewish sages, the words of Torah were essentially divine. God’s words were part and parcel of God’s essence. . . . The goal of the sage is to attach one’s self and to cleave to these divine words, the Torah.” For Alexander, as for many Jews and Christians today, the words themselves are an invitation to intimate relationship, an invitation for God to dwell with the believer.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks opines that the contribution of ancient Greeks to civilization was in the visual arts, but that Jews brought an entirely different focus—not on the eye, but on the ear. He writes that “the key word of Judaism is shema. God is not something we see, but a voice we hear.” And so, these Deuteronomic words come as an invitatory command:
Shema Yisrael does not mean “Hear, O Israel.” It means something like: “Listen. Concentrate. Give the word of God your most focused attention. Strive to understand. Engage all your faculties, intellectual and emotional. Make His will your own. For what He commands you to do is not irrational or arbitrary but for your welfare, the welfare of your people, and ultimately for the benefit of all humanity.”
In his later charge, Moses told the people to remain faithful: “Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. . . . No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.”
First-century writers Philo and Josephus describe a twice-daily recitation of such a call from God. Josephus writes of Moses’s prescription, “Let everyone commemorate before God the benefits he bestowed upon them and their deliverance out of the land of Egypt, and this twice every day, both when the day begins and when the hour of sleep comes on.” Philo portrays a branch of the Essenes ritualizing the words as they physically enacted and embodied these verses: “praying twice a day, at dawn and in the evening . . . as standing up with their faces and their whole body turned towards the dawn . . . [and] lifting their hands towards heaven when they see the sun rise, praying for a happy day and for the light of truth and penetrating wisdom.” Such a daily ritual, with the entire body incorporating the message that God has called one to Hear! and to Love! is a process which anthropologist Victor Turner would consider efficacious in both actions and desired outcomes. The “redundancy” of regularly repeated rites, he says, causes the “whole person [to become] impregnated with a single message through all the channels of communication available to him. He has to live what is being communicated, not merely . . . understand it.”
God’s Character, not His Commands
Hans Boersma cautions against leaping too quickly from communing with God to composing our to-do lists when he writes, “Faith does not terminate in propositions. Neither, however, does it terminate in action. Faith terminates in the contemplation of God.” Could this be the reason for the Shema’s spotlight not on the commands, but on the being, the character, of God Himself? In the opening words of the Shema, we are called to listen, encounter, and love. One does not engage a set of rules with those three verbs; one listens to, encounters, and loves another person—a being with whom one communes and communicates.
Jonathan Sacks surprised me with his commentary on the expected response to the Shema’s greatest commandment to love the Lord: “Obedience stands in relation to command as truth does to making a statement. Yet there is no verb in biblical Hebrew that means to obey. This is an astonishing fact.” Sacks explains that the Israel Defense Forces would utilize an Aramaic verb, letzayet, to convey “obey,” a concept so obviously necessary in a military unit. But “Torah itself uses quite a different word, namely, shema, meaning ‘to hear, to listen’”:
Shema is untranslatable—understandably so since it belongs to biblical Hebrew, the world’s supreme example of a culture of the ear. . . . This is a fact of great consequence and should affect our entire understanding of Judaism. . . . [T]he absence of the verb letzayet [“obey”] tells us that biblical Israel, despite its intense focus on divine commandments, is not a faith that values blind, unthinking, unquestioning obedience.
The command to “love the Lord,” then, is set within the story of Israel’s dramatic rescue out of slavery and God’s offer of a new life after the wilderness years. In fulfilling his promises to their forefathers, God’s actions had revealed his character as the Divine Being who could be trusted.
The Deuteronomic covenant—whether we ponder its Shema or Ten Commandments—is compelling precisely because Yahweh had already been faithful to promises made to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and now Moses. He had already rescued them from enslavement in Egypt and brought them to the brink of a new life. Sacks concludes that “for the most part Jews understood the commands as more, and other, than the arbitrary will of God . . . given by God for our benefit not His.” Moses even makes the radical claim that life in that new land—their “new normal”—was to reveal the character of their God, so unlike the gods of the nations around them. When the pagans saw Israel’s laws, they would say, “Surely, that great nation is a wise and discerning people. For what great nation is there that has a god so close at hand as is the Lord our God whenever we call upon Him? Or what great nation has laws and rules as perfect as all this Teaching that I set before you this day?”
Yet, after such contemplation, Moses does not leave us in a cloistered prayer closet, but instead moves each listener outward by expanding the ritual from prayer and contemplation to interaction with others:
Therefore impress these My words upon your very heart: bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve a symbol on your forehead, and teach them to your children—reciting them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up; and inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates—to the end that you and your children may endure, in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers to assign to them, as long as there is a heaven over the earth.
Intentionality in Communicating the Faith
From an invitation to contemplate God’s being, his character, and his desire for intimacy, the listener is then commissioned to recite and also to ritually depict—with phylacteries and mezuzoth—what one has heard. Images of such quotidian activities as rising from bed, going out the front door, walking along the path, and talking with our children are to be infused with the story of God. And here, especially here, those of us who were under COVID-19 stay-at-home orders are challenged by the Deuteronomic passages to both contemplate “these words” and to communicate those truths to the next generation.
For the Jew and the Christian, relationship with God is centered not primarily in the individual, but rather in the community of faith in which the divine-human covenant is enacted and nurtured. Peter Ochs considers the telos of Morning Prayer’s opening praises to be found in the Shema and “its identification of the worshipper with the covenantal and corporate community of Israel.” Duane Christenson states this concept even more emphatically, writing, “The experience of the living presence of their God in history was what created them [Israel] as a people.” God has invited his people not merely to intellectually assent to his role in their history, but to live it out in perpetuity with words, actions, and memory-jogging reminders.
Recall that as Moses preached his final words to the assembled tribes, only two men, Caleb and Joshua, were of the generation that had escaped out of Egypt, had waited at the base of Mt. Sinai, and then followed the pillar and cloud through the wilderness. All the rest of Israel listening to Moses at the end of their journey were the children of those formerly enslaved. Those gathered at the threshold to the Promised Land were called to “remember” the dramatic rescue through the Red Sea—even though they had never experienced it—and to be ready to enter into a new life, promised to their ancestors:
When, in time to come, your children ask you, “What mean the decrees, the laws, and rules that the Lord our God has enjoined upon you?” you shall say to your children, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and the Lord freed us from Egypt with a mighty hand. The Lord wrought before our eyes marvelous and destructive signs and portents in Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his household; and us He freed from there, that He might take us and give us the land that He had promised on oath to our fathers. Then the Lord commanded us to observe all these laws, to revere the Lord our God, for our lasting good and for our survival, as is now the case. It will be therefore to our merit before the Lord our God to observe faithfully this whole Instruction, as He has commanded us.”
Such an anamnetic telling of God’s story and of his gracious activity on their behalf was to be communicated to future generations in the ordinary moments of life—arising, walking, talking—for the sake of the community: “Hear, O Israel!” Know not only who you are, but whose you are!
For a moment consider the actions—speaking, hearing, and sharing the Words of God as well as placing tactile reminders of relationship with God in plain sight every day. What happens in these rites? Anthropologists agree that repeating such meaning-filled actions and words actually shape us as individuals and as groups. Turner proposes that when engaged in rites of passage—whether tribal or liturgical—a person enters a liminality in which one’s own perspective is changed and where one’s identity is molded:
When men and women enter the “liminality,” the tract of sacred space-time, which is made available to them by such a traditional liturgy, they cease to be bounded by the secular structures of their own age and confront eternity which is equidistant from all ages. . . . Since it communicates the deepest values, it has a paradigmatic function; ritual can anticipate change as well as inscribe order in the minds and hearts of participants.
Carrying out Moses’ instructions would foster intentional identity-formation of the next generation as individuals and as a community of faith called to a new ethical framework.
The Ethical Framework
With Alexander we considered that the internalizing of the text by the faithful is, in essence, an internalization of the Divine Being, a process of forming us to be like the Lord. Such spiritual formation prepares us to consider the ethics demanded by the divine-human covenant, for as Christensen explains, “Obedience is not to be a matter of formal legalism, but rather a response out of deep understanding.” The commands to hear, to love, and to train children should flow into the desired outcome of the Deuteronomic words. Indeed, Kohler sees this outward trajectory in ancient writings:
The same ancient Midrash [on Deuteronomy 6:5] which says: “The Lord is One and therefore universal, but, being our God, He imposes upon us the duty of proclaiming His Unity throughout the world,” . . . has on the following verse the remarkable comment: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God not merely for thyself, but thou shalt make Him beloved by thy fellow-creatures through thy whole conduct toward them.” Thus is the command “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” actually included in the command: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God.” Thus the principle of love as self-surrender comprises God and humanity.
Love of neighbor will be the natural (or, rather, super-natural!) result of loving both God and his Torah (his Words).
When Peter Ochs encourages scriptural reasoners to communally mine texts, he proposes a process that brings to mind those walking, talking, story-of-God conversations that Moses urged the ancients to have with their children. Here is what Ochs recommends as a process for listening to the texts:
Read Scripture as a context for deep conversation among fellow readers. Begin with a conversation about the letters, words, and verses of the texts you read, but also allow the conversation to be transformed by the reading so that Scripture may itself turn the conversation toward issues of belief, responsibility, and action in the world.
Conversations that dig deeply into the meaning of the letters, words, and verses of the texts encourage active thinking, speaking, and, as Sacks reminds us, intensely active listening. Note that, like Moses, Ochs does not leave those conversationalists’ heads up in academic towers, but beckons them down to the ethical realms of responsibility and action, which rightly flow from belief. From the way the verses are put together, a way of living—the way of the Living God—emerges; arising from the words themselves come trajectories not only of belief, but also of responsibility and action in the world.
This should not surprise us for, from a biblical perspective, words are not static, but dynamic: by his spoken words, God created the cosmos. Likewise, neither a curse nor a blessing is simply hope for an eventual outcome, but immediately accomplishes that very result. When the Aaronic benediction is spoken by Jews and Christians, it is no mere wish, but is in actuality the blessing, the shining, and the gracious peace-giving at once working both upon and in the hearers. Ochs, writing of the value of practicing regular Morning Prayer, which begins with the Shema and moves to the Eighteen Blessings, reminds his readers of the force those words will have on everyday decisions: “One purpose and effect of Morning Prayer is to prepare me to offer judgments in a different way, which means to perceive the world differently and act in it differently.” The Mosaic commands reminded the people to “walk only in His paths” which included loving and caring for the fatherless, the widow, and the stranger and which concretely incorporate the Jewish desire for tikkun olam, the repair or healing of the world. To put it simply, the covenantal relationship might be summed up this way:
God loves us > we love him > we learn to love others.
Frankly, the covenantal relationship’s end game was, and still is, ethical behavior.
Most interesting to me, as I consider these chapters detailing Moses’s final words to the people, is where, when, and how this ethics-generating covenantal relationship would be perpetuated. It would not be accomplished primarily at the Tabernacle, Temple, or (later) the synagogue. These devotional rites were, and are yet today, practiced in the home. The home—that place we’d all been confined to during this COVID-19 outbreak. And here is how Moses describes the ethics-building rites: Fix these words in your hearts and minds. Teach them to your children. Talk about them. Write them on your doorposts.Such recitation, narration, and reflection are intended to remind parents and their children of the origin of the covenant and of the call placed upon us as his people.
Interestingly, much as in the Passover rites, Deuteronomy 11 ends with the children asking about their parents’ faith: what is the meaning of all these rules God’s given us? What do these laws mean? The answer? God rescued us! God has freed us to live in this new land. We observe these laws in order to revere him for our lasting good and to show him to those around us! Alexander clarifies that “the rabbis read the first paragraph [Deut. 6] as being about ‘the acceptance of the yoke of the kingship of heaven’ and they read the second paragraph [Deut. 11] as being about ‘the acceptance of the yoke of the commandments.’” What is this yoke of the commandments? Jesus’ response to an inquirer about “the greatest commandment,” recorded in all three synoptic gospels, is certainly consistent with Alexander’s reading of the Shema: the greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart/soul, mind, and might/strength; the second, to love your neighbor as yourself, as Leviticus 19:18 commands. In her introduction to Liturgy, Time, and the Politics of Redemption, Randi Rashkover quotes Karl Barth as she offers insight into the ritual actions of the Shema command and its link to the ethical outcome desired:
Love of the neighbor is a liturgical posture that mediates between the repetition of the praise of God and the demands and needs of the neighbor in all of her particularity as the one or ones for whom I must pray for God’s help. As such, the love of the neighbor will extend the Word of God into the discourse and events of our immediate world. . . . Prayer is the subjective determination of the assurance that we can love our neighbor. . . . [P]raying is the decisive thing . . . the casting of our care upon God; our care about ourselves—how it is with our loving; and our care about the other.
In other words, the life of faith must be, as Stanley Hauerwas ascribed to Dietrich Bonheoffer, “at once theological and political.”
Extending the Word into the World
For most of us under the longer-than-expected quarantines, our pandemic days were certainly unwanted, and they may be viewed by many as wasted and fruitless because, so far at least, we have not faced a disease as devastating as the Spanish flu a century ago. Might we still, though, experience some regret? If not over the Spanish Flu’s dying left alone, then possibly over our children left unprepared for the next challenge in their lives? That even though we had countless hours that could be filled with God-talk as we arose, walked, and talked, we binged on Netflix? Will we view these past days as ones in which our families learned to hear the Word of the Lord and grow spiritually stronger? At the end of these days, will the people of God in faith communities around the globe look more—or less—like the God we proclaim?
A biblical perspective insists that without the aid of the Spirit, I will gravitate to self-interest rather than to the interest of my neighbor. Self-preservation! But that is neither a Mosaic nor a Christian model. Instead, Scripture calls on faith communities to have deep regard for the needs of the widow, orphan, poor, and the stranger. Scripture also advises that by faithful reading and digesting of God’s Word, and by daily reliance on His Spirit, His people will find, through such active listening, renewed vigor and gumption to love both God and neighbor. Rabbi Sacks sums up the opportunity of these days:
Listening is an art, a skill, a religious discipline, the deepest reflex of the human spirit. . . . One trained in the art of listening can hear not only the voice of God but also the silent cry of the lonely, the afflicted, the poor, the needy, the neglected, the unheard. For speech is the most personal of all gestures, and listening the most human – and at the same time, the most divine – of all gifts. God listens, and asks us to listen.
As long days within the walls of our homes recede into memory, may God’s people listen to the Shema’s invitation and truly hear it: first, in deep contemplation and internalization of his words; next, in God-talk and actions which train our children to listen; and finally, in ethical actions that grow out of the ability to hear once again the words of the divine-human covenant.
 David Brooks, “Pandemics Kill Compassion, Too,” The New York Times, March 12, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/12/opinion/pandemic-coronavirus-compassion.html.
 These two passages comprise the first two paragraphs of the recitation of the Shema from the NJPS version The Jewish Study Bible: Jewish Publication Society Tanakh Translation, ed. Adele Berlin, Marc Zvi Brettler (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 380-81 and 390.
 A more traditional rendering of this verse is “Hear, O Israel. The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” This paper addresses the commands of the Shema, not the theological meaning of its introductory verse. For another translation relying on the poetic device of “staircase parallelism” (AB/AC) see Judah Kraut, “Deciphering the Shema: Staircase Parallelism and the Syntax of Deuteronomy 6:4,” Vetus Testamentum 61, Fasc. 4 (2011): 582-602.
 NJPS, 1985.
 JPS, 1917 version, available online: https://www.studylight.org/study-desk.html?type=general&q1=deuteronomy+4&q2=&ss=0&t1=eng_jps&t2=eng_kjv&t3=eng_nas&ns=0&sr=1&pm=1&ot=bhs&nt=wh&hv1=1&b=verse&d=3
 In the past, he rescued us from slavery in Egypt, and now, he “preserves and prospers” us, as the New King James version states in the superscription to Psalm 144.
 Psalm 78: 5-7 abbreviated, NJPS.
 Duane L. Christensen, Word Biblical Commentary: Deuteronomy 1-11 (Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1991), 144.
 Elizabeth Shanks Alexander, “Women’s Exemption from Shema and Tefillin and How These Rituals Came to be Viewed as Torah Study,” Journal for the Study of Judaism 42 (2011), 551-579.
 Alexander, 541.
 Alexander, 541, citing Marc Hirshman, Stabilization of Rabbinic Culture, 100 C.E.-350 C.E.: Texts on Education and Their Late Antique Context (Oxford University Press, 2009).
 Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Deuteronomy: Renewal of the Sinai Covenant (New Milford, CT: Maggid Books, 2019), 72-73. See Deuteronomy 4:12: “The Lord spoke to you out of the fire; you heard the sound of words, but perceived no shape; nothing but a voice.”
 Sacks, 68-69.
 Deuteronomy 30:11,14, NJPS.
 Flavius Josephus, “Antiquities of the Jews,” in The Works of Josephus, ed. William Whiston (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1985), 97.
 K. Kohler, “SHEMA YISROEL: Origin and Purpose of Its Daily Recital,” Journal of Jewish Lore and Philosophy 1, no. 3/4 (July 1919): 255-264.
 Victor Turner, “Ritual, Tribal and Catholic,” Worship Jubilee 50, no. 6 (November 1976): 509.
Hans Boersma, “Formation for Worship,” First Things (April 2020), 51.
 Sacks, 66. Author’s italics.
 Sacks, 66.
 Sacks, 67.
 Sacks, 67.
 Deuteronomy 4:6-8, NJPS.
 Deuteronomy 11:18-21, NJPS.
 In this brief article, I make no attempt to argue whether “these words” refers solely to the Shema’s “Hear, O Israel” or to the entirety of Deuteronomy.
 Peter Ochs, “Morning Prayer” in Liturgy, Time, and the Politics of Redemption, ed C. C. Pecknold and Randi Rashkover (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006), 74.
 Christensen, 145.
 Deuteronomy 6:20-25, NJPS.
 Turner, 523.
 Christensen, 144.
 Kohler, 264.
 Peter Ochs, “The Bible’s Wounded Authority,” in Engaging Biblical Authority: Perspectives on the Bible as Scripture, ed. William Brown, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), 120. Emphasis mine.
 “The Lord bless thee, and keep thee; The Lord make His face to shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee; The Lord lift up His countenance upon thee, and give thee peace” (Numbers 6:24-25, JPS).
 Peter Ochs, “Morning Prayer as Redemptive Thinking,” 56.
 See Deuteronomy 10:12-20, NJPS.
 See Deuteronomy 11:18-21.
 This Mosaic prescription was directed towards fathers, not mothers. For an analysis of the patriarchal command’s exclusion of women, see Alexander. Many Christians today, especially homeschooling families, regard these Deuteronomic commands as directed to both parents. See Chris Klicka, “The Battle for our Children’s Minds.” Texarkana Organization for Resolute Christian Homeschoolers, https://www.homeschool-life.com/467/custom/15099.
 “Through the liturgical recitation of the Shema the worshipper thus reenacts, twice daily, the original covenant ratification ceremony that, in the narrative of Deuteronomy, took place on the plains of Moab” (Berlin and Brettler text note on Deuteronomy 6:4, 380).
 Alexander, 537.
 Mark 12:28–34, Matt 22:34–40, and Luke 10:25–28.
 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I.II., in Randi Rashkover’s “Introduction: The Future of the Word and the Liturgical Turn,” in Liturgy, Time, and the Politics of Redemption, 18-19. Italics mine.
 Stanley Hauerwas, Performing the Faith: Bonhoeffer and the Practice of Nonviolence (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2004), 42.
 Sacks, 77.