The second paragraph of the Shema, V’haya im shmoa, has played a prominent and, at times, controversial role in the Jewish tradition. The rabbinic tradition derives from it the idea that the observance of the mitzvot (commandments) is of primary importance in a Jew’s relationship with God. This idea is reenforced by its hotly debated theology of reward and punishment as a means for reenforcing the observance of the mitzvot. To my mind, however, it is the rabbinic reinterpretation of a single word in this passage which stands out most.
The opening verse of this passage reads:
And it shall be, if you indeed heed My commandments with which I charge you today to love the Lord your God and to “serve (u’le’avdo)” Him with all your heart and with all your being… (Deuteronomy 11:13)
The word “la’avod – to serve” is composed of the root letters “ayin bet deled”. In biblical Hebrew, this verb can mean “to work”, “to serve”, “to obey”, “to worship”. The likely pshat or plain meaning of this word in its context is “to serve”, namely, to fulfill God’s will by observing the mitzvot.
The rabbinic transformation of its meaning is found in following midrash from the period of the Mishnah:
And to serve Him (11:13) – This refers here to study. You say: “This refers to study, but perhaps it refers to labor? (This cannot be) since Scripture says: ‘And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the Garden of Eden to work it and to guard it’ (Genesis 2:15)—what work or guarding was there in the past (in Eden)? Therefore, you learn that to work must mean ‘to study’, and to guard it must mean to observe the commandments. Just as serving at the altar is called “service,” so is study called “service.”
Another interpretation of and to serve Him: This refers to prayer. You say, “This refers to prayer, but perhaps it refers to (Temple) service?” (This cannot be) since Scripture says: ‘With all your heart and with all your being (11:13) Is there such a thing as (Temple) service in one’s heart? Therefore, what does the verse mean by ‘and to serve Him’? It refers to prayer.” (Sifre Devarim 41, Finkelstein ed. pp. 87-88)
Through playful etymology and associative reasoning the word “avad” provides a textual foundation for three fundamental religious practices which rabbinic Judaism built into its response to the catastrophic end of Temple centered Judaism. Universal Torah study, the observance of mitzvot and prayer replace what was lost with the demise of Temple ritual. To “serve” God was now to be carried out by every Jew through these three elements.
There is one further idea found in this midrash, which in addition to the above, is a subtle critique of the Temple ritual. The sages paid careful attention to the continuation of the verse, noting that service to God must be done “with all your heart and with all of your being.” This midrash indicated that this may have been absent in Temple ritual but would surely be more likely to be included in the religious regimen that they proposed since it involved the inner life of every individual.
I guess one might summarize the rabbinic attitude toward serving God by paraphrasing the words of a once popular song: “You’ve got to have heart”!