Accepting the Yoke – Kriat Shma Pt. 9

In my article last week, I wrote about the first paragraph of Shma, and I discussed this declaration of belief and love of God, our Sovereign. Many authorities refer to this as KABALAT OHL MALCHUT SHAMAYIM, accepting the yoke of the kingship of heaven. I prefer to call this ‘acceptance of the Eternal as our God’ rather than accepting the ‘yoke’ because I think that ‘yoke’ implies there’s a potential downside to this acceptance. The first paragraph of Shma has no such ‘downside’, unlike paragraph two. The declaration SHMA YISRAEL is a wonderful commitment, but contains no negative implications, unlike paragraph two, as we shall see.

   The first paragraph, after instructing us to study Torah everywhere (‘while sitting in your home and traveling on the road’) and everwhen (‘when you lie down and when you rise up’) concludes with two other protective institutions. First, we have TEFILLIN. These boxes containing excerpts from the Torah are placed upon our arms and heads. We see these objects as a sort of guidance system for our thoughts and actions. We almost program our hands and heads every weekday morning to behave appropriately. Notice that the TEFILLIN on our arm is one solid box, while the one placed upon our head has four compartments. Clearly, we desire unified actions but accept variations in our thoughts and opinions.

We finish this first paragraph by telling ourselves to put similar boxes on our doors and gates. This is also, I believe, to protect us from negative forces lurking beyond the threshold of our home. The Vilna Gaon observes that placing this reminder on entry ways into our house reminds us of the warning God gave to KAYIN, ‘Sin crouches at the doorway’ (Breishit 4:7). 

Now that we have been fortified with Torah study, TEFILLIN and MEZUZOT, we begin the second section of Shma. We’re quickly informed that good things will happen if we heed God’s Mitzvot. But here we’re also informed that bad things will happen if we don’t. This warning is called accepting the OHL MITZVOT, accepting the ‘yoke’ of Mitzvot. Here I appreciate the use of the term ‘yoke’ because we’re clearly being warned of negative consequences for non-compliance.  

How do these ‘consequences’ work? If we heed the system of Mitzvot, then: I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early (YOREH, powerful) rain and the late (MALKOSH, soft) rain. You shall gather in your new grain and wine and oil. I will also provide grass in the fields for your cattle, and thus you shall eat your fill (Devarim 11:14 & 15).

However, if we are enticed to stray from this path to serve another way of life, then God will display Divine temper (CHARI AF, visible anger). Rav Steinzaltz discusses this straying from the path (what we call OTD, off the DERECH). He explains that the language of YIFTEH (seduction) and SARTEM (straying) is based on the fact that the onset of sin isn’t a result of evil and malice. People don’t wake up bad one morning, on the contrary, sin comes as a result of negligence and lack of focus. We didn’t stray because of malevolence; it’s a result of inadvertent behavior. Clearly, we must keep the focus, more on that in the third paragraph of Shma. 

The result of this Divine displeasure which our bad behavior caused will be: shutting up the skies so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce; and you will soon perish from the good land that the Eternal is assigning to you (verse 17). 

 The literal meaning is clear. Adherence to the commitment brings success in the normative path of the Covenant, life in Eretz Yisrael. Dereliction of this responsibility brings disaster, failure to the eternal enterprise of the Jewish people.

But not everyone understands the deal literally. The Vilna Gaon suggests that the YOREH refers to prophecy and the MALKOSH is Divine inspiration (RUACH HAKODESH). In other words, in the historical time frame of the first Temple, the blessings and curses appeared literally, but in later times, the punishments and rewards are all about connection to God. We crave close connections to God; sin severs them.

Rav Soloveitchik also understands the weather conditions metaphorically:

Rain in the Land of Israel is not only a necessity for life but also symbolic of the closeness of God to His people. Conversely, the withholding of rain is not only a great danger to the physical survival of the population, but also demonstrates that God has removed His Providence…Due to the strain in the relationship between God and Israel, fasts were proclaimed to reestablish our connection to God when rain did not fall in Israel. In contrast, lack of rain outside of Israel is nothing more than another manifestation of nature. 

 Then comes the worst scenario our ancestors could ever imagine: V’AVADITEM MEHEIRA (and you will swiftly be lost, perhaps disappear) from the Land that God has given you. Our forebears couldn’t imagine anything worse than losing the Land. Then we lost the Land, and many came to believe living in exile had become the norm. Tragic.

Then our second paragraph of Shma ends, basically the same way the first paragraph ended, with advice about protective practices to prevent us from losing our way. We’re told: Therefore impress these My words upon your very heart: bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead, and teach them to your children, reciting them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up; and inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates (verses 18-20).

To succeed we must keep to the path, but that requires vigilance. Only with constant focus on the path and its route can we remain on it. That focus requires Torah study, and placing key sections of Torah on our bodies and our passageways. Next we discuss our eternal covenant with God, and that’s paragraph three, to be discussed in my next article.

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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