Rabbi Eliad Skuri
Former Rosh Kollel in Kansas City
This Shabbat we will read the first parashah (section) of Keriat Shema twice: once as part of the regular davening, and once as a part of the Torah reading for Parashat Va’etchanan. Next week we will read the second parashah of Keriat Shema – VeHayah Im Shamo’a. These two parshiot are recited twice daily, an indication that they are fundamental to Jewish faith. They appear at the beginning of Deuteronomy, as part of Moshe’s speech to the Jewish nation before they entered the Land of Israel, forty years after they left Egypt.
Our Sages point out that there is a significance to the order in which these sections appear in the Torah. “Why did Shema precede VeHayah Im Shamo’a? To teach us that one must accept the yoke of Heaven before accepting the yoke of the commandments (Mishnah, Berakhot 2:2). That is, the order in which these parshiot appear in the Torah teaches us the basics of how a person can ascend the ladder of connection to God. First comes belief and acceptance of God’s Kingship, which we find in the second line of Shema: “Ve’ahavta – And you shall love the Lord your God.” Only afterwards is there acceptance of the commandments: “VeHayah Im Shamo’a – If you listen to My commandments.”
These two parshiot also appear on the parchment of the mezuzah, which is on the doorpost of every Jewish household. In contrast, as we know, tefillin contains four parshiot: Shema, VeHayah Im Shamo’a, Kadesh Li Kol Bekhor, and VeHayah Ki Yeviakha. The last two appear in Parashat Bo, and the Jews heard them at the time of their departure from Egypt.
The question arises: why are the four parshiot of tefillin split into two subsets, one which the Jews received upon their departure, and the other which they received only forty years later, at their last stop?
We can derive an interesting lesson from a midrash on a different verse in the parashah, “It has been clearly demonstrated to you that the Lord alone is God; there is none besides Him” (Deuteronomy 4:35). The midrash elaborates (Yalkut Shimoni, Joshua 10):
Yitro said: “Now I know that the Lord is greater than all gods” (Exodus 18:11). They taught that there was not a single idol in the world which he had not worshipped. That is why he said, “greater than all gods,” because he attributed existence to idols (and therefore referred to other gods as if they exist).
Naaman made a further admission of belief: “Now I know that there is no God in the whole world except in Israel!” (II Kings 5:15).
Rachav admitted even more: “For the Lord your God is [the only] God in heaven above and on earth below” (Joshua 2:11). God said to Rachav, “You said that ‘the Lord your God is God.’ It is reasonable to say that about the earth, and you extrapolated to the heaven.” . . . . But Rachav still did not include the space between the two.
Moshe came along and said: “It has been clearly demonstrated to you that . . . the Lord alone is God in heaven above and on earth below; there is no other (Deuteronomy 4:35-39). This includes the space between the two. God said to him, “You added ‘there is no other.’ Give him the reward he has earned!” [That is why it says,] “Never again did there arise a prophet in Israel like Moshe” (Ibid. 34:10).
These four all came to recognize and know the greatness of God, and all praised the God of Israel. Nevertheless, our Sages examine their language very carefully and discern differences between them. Each one advanced in understanding and added to the words of his predecessor, but only Moshe reached the highest level of understanding and recognition of God’s existence, so he was the only one who could fully praise God by saying, “there is no other.”
It is clear from this that even when a person recognizes, knows, and believes in God, there are still many levels within belief and knowledge of God.
There is a similar principle elaborated by our Sages in the Zohar (Ra’aya Mehemna, Exodus 25:1). The Zohar poses the following question. The Jews were promised that with the Exodus from Egypt they would fulfill the verse, “And you will know that I am God” (Exodus 6:7). Nevertheless, in the fortieth year Moshe said to them, “Know therefore today and keep in mind that the Lord alone is God” (Deuteronomy 4:39). When then did the Jews merit knowledge of God?
The Zohar responds that there are two levels in knowledge of God. One level is a general knowledge of God – being aware that there is an exalted Ruler who created the heavens, earth, and man. The other level is a specific knowledge of God – being aware of His will which is reflected in the details of His Torah and commandments.
Based on this distinction, the Zohar explains that it is true that at the time of the Exodus, when the Jews witnessed the plagues and the miracles, they merited knowing God as promised. However, this was only the first rung of the ladder of knowing God – a general knowledge of Him. It was the starting point of the forty-year journey in the desert. These were years of accepting the Torah and the commandments, and of withstanding trials. Essentially, it was a forty-year journey of ascending the ladder of knowledge of God, which ended with the highest level – specific knowledge of God. Moshe said, “I have led you for forty years in the desert . . . but God did not give you a heart to know . . . until this day” (Deuteronomy 29:3-4). Our Sages derive from these verses that “A person does not truly know the will of his teacher until [he has studied with him for] forty years” (Avodah Zarah 5b). Comprehensive knowledge of God is an exalted level, which a person reaches only through withstanding trials and clinging to the will of God through Torah study and observance of the commandments. Reaching this level follows a lengthy process which takes forty years after a person reaches a basic level of faith.
Based on this principle, we can answer our question why there’s a forty-year gap between tefillin’s first two and last two parshiot. Tefillin both symbolizes and creates closeness to God and the specific knowledge of God. It includes parshiot from the beginning of the journey – Kadesh and VeHayah Ki Yeviakha – which emphasize God’s strength that informs us of His existence (general knowledge of God). It also includes parshiot from the end of the journey – Shema and VeHayah Im Shamo’a – which emphasize the connection to God through learning the Torah which leads to comprehensive knowledge of God: “These things which I command today you should take to heart. Teach them to your children and speak of them . . . and bind them as a sign on your arms” (Deuteronomy 6:6-8). The two parshiot in the tefillin which appear at the beginning of Deuteronomy express the exalted level of specific knowledge of God, a deep and encompassing belief which is much greater than the general belief in the existence of God. The Jews reached this level only in the fortieth year, and a person can reach this level only through love of God, study of Torah, and observance of the commandments.