A close reading of the first paragraph of the Shema and an examination of its context can reveal a great deal that most have likely not noticed. For example, one key is its placement within the book of Devarim, which precedes the second paragraph of the Shema by five chapters (11:13–20). While these two passages cover much the same ground, they are atypical of repetitive biblical passages. Generally, repetitive passages are either right next to each other or separated by many chapters or even whole books. They also usually consist of almost the exact same content. What’s more, because the second passage is repeated in a new context, it is stated for reasons different from those of the first.
Here, however, we have something quite different. For one, the passages are neither immediately adjacent to each other nor far removed from one another. Moreover, the passages, while quite similar in content and meaning, are uniquely stylized: certain phrases in the first passage are omitted in the second, new passages are inserted into the second that did not appear in the first, and grammatical schemes differ.
In addition to the particulars of their specific content, these sections also bookend what others have already identified as the fundamental “mitzva” section of Moshe’s discourse (Devarim 6:4–11:25). The primary theme of “the mitzva” is basic allegiance, and it is quite clear that we are dealing with a distinct thematic section which opens with the first paragraph of the Shema and concludes with the second and is all about the need to be loyal to God. When these elements combine with the fact that the verses between these two passages have much the same substance and style as their “bookends,” we see something quite singular being created. At the very least, the Torah has brought the different pieces together to create a larger thematic section of text.
An objection could be raised that this unit appears to be highly unwieldy and has parts that don’t to fit very well with the general theme. Yet not all patterns and themes work in the same way. In fact, sometimes a certain amount of disorder is itself a part of the art. For those familiar with jazz music, this may ring a bell.
The entire passage (i.e., Devarim 6:7–11:20) actually has some very striking affinities with jazz. For one, a jazz composition begins and returns to a common, unifying theme. Moreover, the final rendition of the theme at the conclusion of the piece is usually presented in a different, somewhat more robust form. The latter is exactly what we find in the second
paragraph of the Shema. Even more helpful is what we find in the middle section, between the bookends. As in jazz, the binding thread is not always easy to follow and sometimes even leads to a complete tangent. Nevertheless, we get constant reminders of it, with variations of the theme’s components finding their way into key parts of the composition, most commonly at points of transition.
Along these lines, the phrase, “the Lord, your God,” which we find in the second verse of the Shema, is found clustered throughout the entire section. Immediately after the first occurrence of “The Lord, your God” comes bechol levavecha u’vechol nafshecha (with all of your heart and with all of your soul). This too is pointedly repeated (10:12) in the middle section, as is the very famous beginning of the section, Shema Yisrael (8:1). Both these last two phrases reappear only once, but given their very uncommon word combinations, it is hard to see their repetition as mere coincidence.
As mentioned, a jazz piece reverts to its main theme at the very end. It does so because the melody that begins and ends the song informs the essence of the piece. The same can be said of our text as well: the central purpose of the repetition at the end, as well as of its various strands that emerge in the middle, is to demarcate the larger unit’s major theme.
Admittedly, there are parts of the “mitzva” section where the main pattern is less clear; the discussion of the golden calf incident immediately comes to mind. But I would suggest that the atypical parts can be likened to jazz riffs. And so when looking at the entire piece, a pattern comes through clearly – one made up of various components that create a very sophisticated thematic unit.Rabbi Francis Nataf