The Shema – Judaism’s Most Important Spiritual Practice

The Shema – Judaism’s Most Important Spiritual Practice October 22, 2015

Photo: Copyright: underverse / 123RF Stock Photo
Photo: Copyright: underverse / 123RF Stock Photo

We generally think that spiritual practices have to be difficult. No pain, no gain tends to be our mantra in the physical and spiritual realms. But if you are anything like me, you avoid pain like the plague! Jesus said that if you have enough faith, you can move mountains.

That sounds like way too much work for me. I’d rather take a nap…

But what if spiritual practices don’t have to be so difficult? For example, take the most important spiritual practice in Judaism. It’s called the Shema. For thousands of years, Jews have been repeating this phrase at least twice a day, when they wake up and when they go to sleep. In reciting the Shema, many Jews have believed that they receive the kingdom of heaven. The Shema goes like this,

Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord alone.

The word “shema” is the Hebrew means “to hear” or “to listen.” The most important Jewish spiritual practice is based simply on listening.

Listening shouldn’t be very difficult, but in a world filled with so much noise, taking the time to listen can be challenging. News networks, political debates, family conflicts – the “winner” is often the person who doesn’t listen, but instead yells the loudest.

Clearly, our culture is off balance. There is too much noise. And so we need to bring back the Shema. We need to bring back the ancient Jewish spiritual practice of listening.

Importantly, the Shema was given to the Israelites after the Exodus from Egypt. It was in Egypt that the enslaved Israelites cried out in their pain and God heard their cry. God listened. God was the first to practice the Shema and models for us how to listen to the cry of the oppressed and the marginalized of human culture. In listening to their cry, in practicing the Shema, we become more like the God who listens to the cry of those who suffer.

The Shema for Today

Today is part of the Global Day of Listening. It is a project of the Afghan Peace Volunteers and it seeks to promote active listening around the world to foster healing from traumatic events and to create a more peaceful world.

A few days after the tragic shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, I was listening to NPR and was reminded about the importance of listening. They were interviewing a pastoral therapist from Roseburg. The interviewer asked him a very important question, “You are a therapist. You’ve been trained to handle these kinds of traumatic situations. What can the rest of us do after events like the shooting at Umpqua Community College?”

The therapist replied with the ancient spiritual wisdom of the Shema. He said, “I’m persuaded that the best counsel in times of trauma and tragedy is less speaking and more simply being present … You don’t have to be trained to listen and sometimes people just want to talk.”

Secular and religious therapists will all say the same thing – in times of suffering, people want to be heard when they cry out. We don’t have to worry about saying the right things or solving their problems. In fact, imposing our words and answers upon them often just gets in the way of their healing.

But the corollary to being heard is to talk, to talk about our emotions and our pain. This is where our culture has problems because we’re taught to not be a “burden” on others. Few of us want to admit to ourselves or to others that we have pain and that we are vulnerable. We’d much rather handle it ourselves, put on a tough exterior, and bury our pain deep within.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t lead to healing. Rather, it leads to more harm as our bottled up emotions explode during times of stress. Controlling our emotions by bottling them up never works in the long term. When we us that method, we soon discover that we don’t control our emotions; our emotions control us.

The Shema calls us into a different way of life. It invites us to listen to the pain within ourselves and within our neighbors. In doing so, we find healing. And we find very presence of God.

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Photo: Copyright: underverse / 123RF Stock Photo

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