This week’s Torah portion, Vaetchanan (Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11) contains the Sh’ma, (Deut. 6:4-9) which begins, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God; the Lord is one.” You may find the rest of the prayer easily, because these words may be those most often spoken in Jewish prayer. They appear in every Jewish service at least once, they are the words that we say as our bedtime prayer, they form the end to the all-day Yom Kippur service and they are supposed to be the last words a Jew utters on the deathbed.
The modern Torah commentary Etz Chaim points out that the Sh’ma is not really a prayer at all; it is addressed not to God but to the people Israel. In just a few short sentences, it covers the basic theological beliefs of Judaism: there is one God, singular and unique, and we are commanded to love God wholeheartedly, study God’s word and teach it to our children.
Theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel remarked, on the first word of the prayer, “Jewish prayer is an act of listening. We do not bring forth our own words. The self is silent; the spirit of the people Israel speaks. In prayer, we listen to what the words convey.”