This is cross posted from the blog Davenspot where I was honored to be a guest blogger.
When I lead services, regardless of whether it is for kids or adults, I love to explain my take on the Sh’ma and the surrounding paragraphs. Whether you are Reform and call it Sh’ma U’virchotecha–Sh’ma and its blessings–or traditional and call it K’riat Sh’ma–reciting of Sh’ma–the texts before and after the Sh’ma line are consistent. The paragraph before the Sh’ma, beginning with Ahavat Rabbah in the morning and Ahavat Olam in the evening, declares God’s love for the people Israel. The paragraph after the Sh’ma is the one that follows it directly in the book of D’varim in the Torah. (The Baruch Shem line is not from the Torah sequence.) V’Ahavtah talks about our love for God. So Sh’ma, our ultimate statement of our faith in God, is surrounded with prayers about ahavah, love.
This spring, I was leading a Shabbat morning service for third through fifth graders in a Reconstructionist Synagogue. Before we began the Sh’ma portion, I explained these paragraphs as: First God tells us that God loves us. This is before we even say the Sh’ma, our ultimate statement of faith in God. God says it first because no one wants to be the first one to say, “I love you.” And now, knowing that God loves, us, we can say the V’Ahavatah, we tell God that we love God back. And what’s in the middle? The Sh’ma. I like to call this the Sh’ma Love Sandwich!
I’m sure that I had told this story before during my many years at this congregation. Usually the kids rolled their eyes at my goofiness. There she goes, talking about God again! This time was different. As I completed my last sentence, a fifth grader jumped in with the following story: His mom and dad liked to put him between them and hug him tight. They call this a love sandwich. As with many students his age, he started talking before he realized that this might not be a cool thing to say. His voice became softer as he finished. Wanting to validate his comment, I shouted, “That’s it! That’s the Sh’ma! That’s just the way God loves us and we love God.”
While I certainly hadn’t intended for my story to create some sort of assessment of learning, I used his example to show that this was indeed a valid interpretation of this text. And while I seriously doubt that the student had connected more than the words “love sandwich” with his family ritual, now he and others may have a visible connection. Everyone in that room could identify with being hugged by their parents.
As Jews, we don’t talk much in the vernacular about loving God and God loving us. This seems to have become part of Christian God-language. Clearly it is part of our liturgy and perhaps we should consider reclaiming this language.
I’ve always learned that the paragraphs around the Sh’ma were chosen for their themes of creation, revelation, and redemption. This idea has been taught as if it was Mt. Sinai, as if it came all of the way from the time of Moses, when it was actually devised by 19th Century German scholars. While the ideas of creation, revelation, and redemption work for me as an adult, I doubt seriously that they will work for our students. In education we say that we need to “meet the student where s/he is.” Perhaps we need to remember this when we teach liturgy. The Sh’ma line is probably the first piece of Jewish text that our students learn. There is already a comfort level with that text. And the idea that it is wrapped in love is something that they can get their heads around.