Why the Shema is considered the watchword of our faith

If Jewish faith can be saved, the Shema has lessons we need to hear.

  A Jewish worshipper wears Tefillin as he prays at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site, in Jerusalem's Old City March 8, 2012. Tefillin, leather straps and boxes containing sacred parchments, are worn by Orthodox Jewish men during morning prayer (photo credit: BAZ RATNER/REUTERS)
A Jewish worshipper wears Tefillin as he prays at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site, in Jerusalem's Old City March 8, 2012. Tefillin, leather straps and boxes containing sacred parchments, are worn by Orthodox Jewish men during morning prayer
(photo credit: BAZ RATNER/REUTERS)
To understand the meaning and importance of the Shema (including the “v’ahavta”), we must read it carefully and thoughtfully focus on the words. In the Shema, what is God commanding? That there is one God, we must love him with all our heart and must teach these words to our children at all times – before sleep, upon awakening and during daily activity.
These words should be celebrated with tefillin – “Bind them for a sign upon thy hand and be for frontlets between thine eyes.” These words also appear within the mezuzot placed at the entrance to every room in our houses and at the entrance to our houses. We do this so that every single time we walk past one of these mezuzot, we are reminded of our belief in and love for God and of our duty to diligently convey this to our children.
Once we perceive the intended role of the Shema in our lives, we can appreciate the significance of Moses’ speeches to the Children of Israel as they were about to enter the Promised Land. These speeches are delineated in the Book of Deuteronomy, which explains that Hashem asked Moses to speak to the Israelites and tell them Hashem would promise that Judaism would survive “for 1,000 generations” and “for as long as the heavens were above the earth” but that God would uphold this guarantee only if the children of Israel pledged to teach their children to love God with all their hearts and they, in turn, taught their children and so on and so forth for all eternity (l’dor v’dor).
This was the only commitment required (simply to adhere to and follow the teaching of the Shema) to ensure the eternal survival of Judaism. This is why the Shema is the watchword and mantra of our faith. It is a covenant and a contract between God and our people and it is the existential basis for our survival.
Psychologists teach that each of us possesses an inner thought process that dictates our actions and responses. They call this our Narrative Identity and they explain that it is an acquired characteristic rooted in childhood experiences.
In my case, I understand exactly what my narrative identity is. Simply stated: I am a Jew, and I will always try to act in accord with Jewish values. Furthermore, I recognize the source of this doctrine: my parents’ painstaking and repeated efforts to have me recite the Shema every night and every morning. This was accompanied by a detailed explanation of the meaning and significance of the prayer. In addition, other contributing factors included my recitation of the “Modeh Ani” (“grateful am I”) prayer every morning before getting out of bed. Also, observing my father donning tefillin and my mother attending meetings to support Jewish organizations were relevant aspects of my identity. I don’t know if my parents were aware of Moses’ speeches and Hashem’s promise to make Judaism everlasting in return for our adherence to the Shema’s teachings, but I think they were, and I do know that they believed that I would remain a committed Jew if I continued to recite the Shema every day.
Moses and my parents were not the only ones who taught that adherence to the Shema would ensure the survival of our heritage. I have found an entire group whose narrative identity is to save the future of Judaism through proclaiming the Shema every day. This group is the Chabad rabbis. I have had several brief but intimate encounters that reveal their devotion to getting all Jews to recite the Shema twice daily. To depict the remarkable determination of the Chabbadniks regarding the Shema, here are a few of my encounters with them:
Encounter No. 1: 25 years ago, I walked into a Judaica store whose proprietor was a Chabbad rabbi. He asked me if I had donned tefillin that day. When I said no, he locked the door, put arm and head tefillin on me and said God would be satisfied if I were to merely say the first two lines of the Shema. When I finished, he asked me to promise that I would say the Shema twice daily every day for the rest of my life. He then unlocked the door and thanked me.
Encounter No. 2: 10 years ago, I attended a Jewish fair where there were booths and tables filled with Jewish products. There were also at least a dozen Chabad rabbis who stopped every Jewish man, helped them put on tefillin and recited the Shema with them.
Encounter No. 3: two months ago, my wife and I were in line at a store and the person in front of us was a Chabad rabbi. He introduced himself and asked if I had grandchildren. I told him I had four grandsons and he asked if I had tefillin. He then requested that, the next time I was with my grandchildren all together, I put on the tefillin and say the Shema in their presence. Finally, he gave me the address of his congregation and asked me to visit him after I complied with his request.
I now refer to the persistence and unwavering determination of the Chabad rabbanim as a benevolent obsession by a group with the united belief that the Shema is the gateway to the eternal survival of Judaism. They understand that the Shema is our mission statement; our raison d’etre; our watchword; our mantra; and our most important purpose. Surely, their actions and outreach efforts explain why Chabad Jews intermarry at only a 2-5% rate while non-Orthodox Jews in America intermarry at a 71% rate (Pew research foundation survey).
I am convinced that the Shema is our hope to overcome the threat of assimilation and our pathway to continued support for Hashem.
I hope that I have helped to convince you.
The author is a Jewish American citizen who possesses a PhD in organic chemistry, was executive vice president of a Fortune 500 company and has served for 58 years as a lay chaplain conducting high-holiday services at hospitals, prisons, nursing homes, and other venues where his congregants did not have easy access to worship at a synagogue.