Hear, O Israel

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I open my eyes. The morning light snuffs out the last embers of sleep. Hear, O Israel

I close my eyes. Lashes and lids become a wet blanket. Hear, O Israel.

Each day bookended with these words, the final desire of the soul before death uttered in these words:

“Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” (Deut. 6:4)

* * *

This affirmation–part prayer, part imperative, part invitation—is called The Shema, after the initial summons in Hebrew to hear. It is the seminal word for the Jewish community, the call to listen to God. And it’s not about listening to the God, as if it’s a statement about monotheism. No, it’s listening to our God, a declaration of solidarity with the One who created, delivered and sustained this people.

The words are first uttered at the edge of the wilderness, on the cusp of the Promised Land. The Hebrew people, ready to cross over into a new life, stopped for a final set of sermons from Moses. The last exhortation to this generation begins with The Shema—a call to focus their attention not on the new land, but on their God. Hear, O Israel!

As we stand alongside our Jewish counterparts, we are all invited to listen to God with our entirety. Bring your heart and soul and all your energy to this one purpose of loving God. Offer your body, your innermost thoughts, your sloshing emotions and your most strenuous volition toward this act of love.

Some translators even note the connotations of the word “might” in Hebrew indicate property or possessions, therefore the instruction to offer all your wealth towards loving God, to leave no resource untapped when it comes to our devotion and loyalty

The emphasis of the grammar is on the word ALL—direct it all with singular focus toward loving God. This is the ultimate exhortation–listen with loyalty and full-bodied love. This kind of listening, paying attention, requires leaning in with all we’ve got.

When we listen to God, we do so with more than our ears.

* * *

Listening to God, living with complete loyalty and devoted love sounds like good and holy work, but also quite abstract. How do we embody The Shema?

“’Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ …and ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Mark 12:29-3)

Jesus recites these two commands in succession, saying that they are the comprehensive way to obey the law. Notice The Shema is now a command, something that involves the addition of all our strength. (I imagine that Jesus, now living in a human body, knows how much strength must be mustered to listen and lean into these ancient words.

But Jesus also illustrates how the loyalty and love can be lived out—neighbor love. Elsewhere he will add enemy love to the kind of full-bodied love that demonstrates our undiluted devotion to God. So yes, it will require every ounce of strength we’ve got to listen and love God!

* * *

“Shema, O Israel!”

Hear me speak! Listen up! Lean in! Give attention to the words I’m saying, the story I’m trying to tell through my pain. Listen as I try to put words to sorted details and describe how it felt. Don’t let my tears shut you down; don’t be distracted by my awkward pauses. Sit and listen.

Scoot closer to me, cut the distance by half. Lean in, let me see how every muscle is engaged in your listening, your very posture communicating that this moment matters to you.

Show me I’m not alone in this. Stay close. Show me that even when I feel most ugly and ashamed of it all, you see me. Don’t run. Don’t forget. Please don’t try to divert my attention with a Kleenex while you make an exit and never return to this moment, my story—me.

Be present to me in the listening and in the aftermath because if love is anything, it’s durable, right? So listen to me and walk with me. I know caring about me might cost you something, might take more than you think you got in you. It’s a hard sell, I know. And I can’t promise anything. I’m feeling like the least, like the smallest version of myself these days.

All I want is for someone to listen to me … really listen.

* * *

What if that listening involved loyalty and love? What if we heard others in such a way that we couldn’t resist the urge to walk in solidarity with them? What if our listening unlocked compassion and companionship? What if the stories of our sisters ignited our commitment to pursue justice for them and with them.

Could we practice such a full-bodied love? Could we be women who love simply by beginning to be women who listen? Could we shema one another and in so doing, shema our God?

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Kelley Nikondeha
Kelley is co-director and chief storyteller for Communities of Hope, a community development enterprise in Burundi. She is also the author of Adopted: The Sacrament of Belonging in a Fractured World (Eerdmans).
Kelley Nikondeha
Kelley Nikondeha

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