Pirkei Avot 2:18 - What Should we Think During Shema?

This post is dedicated in memory of Etya Sarah bat Yitzchak ha-Levi. May it be an aliyah for                                                            her neshama.
Elisheva Maline

Rabbi Shimon says, "Be careful during the recitation of the shema while praying; when you daven (pray) don't make it a fixed activity; rather, look at it as an opportunity to beg G-d for supplication for it says (Yoel 2), 'For G-d is gracious, merciful, slow to anger and abundant in kindness as well as relenting despite one's inappropriate deeds.' Don't be wicked in your own eyes."

You may recall from a previous mishnah (2:10,11) that Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai praised Rabbi Shimon for being a man who feared sin. What significance is there in one who is always gazing fearfully over his shoulder, so to speak? 

Rabbi Shimon advised the coming generations to work on their ability to "see" the outcome of their actions. Jewish thought considers one who trembles at the idea of sin as one of the loftiest among our kind. In fact, according to the Ramchal's Path of the Just "Fear of Sin" is the end goal and the highest rung on the ladder to holiness. Unlike those who don't mind dancing on the edge of disaster, or playing next to high voltage wires, the man who keeps his eye on the consequences of his thoughts and actions will come out looking more clean cut in G-d's eyes.

After declaring his motto on how to live well, the accomplishment of which is no afternoon picnic, Rabbi Shimon offers us a shortcut. If you take the recitation of the Shema seriously, and adhere to the laws surrounding its being said in the morning and evening prayers, you will have an easier time fearing G-d. One of the reasons for this phenomenon lies within the meaning behind the words themselves. Hear O Israel, the L-rd is our G-d, the L-rd is One. What does this mean? Everything emanates from Hashem (G-d): you, your house, your spouse, the tree in your front yard and the clerk at the counter's smile starts and ends with G-d. He made it happen; He can make it stop happening. The growth of this awareness 'I am aware that He is aware' should cause one to stop and wonder, "What does G-d want from me now?" I heard someone quote Rabbi Wolbe, one of the Torah giants from Europe, asking a group of students once, "Do you think it's easy saying the shema?" When someone answered yes, he snapped, "Then you weren't concentrating. The words should make you shudder. G-d is watching us every second."

Before you get suspicious or lachrymose, I will hurriedly add that I'm not trying to advertise G-d as some big, frowny face in the sky. Often time, in the prayers, the words Our Father, Our King are placed side by side. First and foremost, G-d is our father: He makes sure all our needs are met in the kindest possible way (something that is not always easy to recognize; however, like any muscle, trust in G-d's ability to take care of us can be strengthened over time). But we must still consider Him with the awe and trepidation befitting a monarch. 

Unfortunately, the reality of today makes the next cautionary line necessary: for a relationship based on love and fear to flourish one may need to balance out his love and fear for that significant other. Not dysfunctional fear, mind you, the healthy kind, the kind that keeps you from toeing the line.  

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