In the past I’ve discussed the differences between the first paragraph of Shema and the second. The first paragraph is generally referred to as the V’ahavta, while the second paragraph starts with V’haya im-shemoah. The two sections resemble each other, repeating the same mitzvahs, and they even have a similar flow. But there’s one other variation I’ve not mentioned before, and it may be the heart of the other differences in the two verses.
Quick review: Here are the differences I’ve discussed in the past.
•Written in the singular.
•Doesn’t contain reward and punishment.
•Says “b’chol levavcha (with all your heart), ov’chol nafshecha (with all your soul), ov’chol m’odecha (with all your might/resources).”
•Written in the plural.
•Does contain reward and punishment and so it is much longer.
•Says “b’chol levavchem (with all your heart [plural]), ov’chol nafshechem (with all your souls), but no mention of M’odechem.”
So what’s missing? It concerns the mitzvah of teaching the Torah. In the first paragraph, the word is V’shinantam, while in the second paragraph it is the word, v’limadtem. What is the difference between these two words and why does the Torah make such a change?
No Synonyms in Hebrew
Hebrew is a very nuanced language where every variation of a word communicates a different idea. Here we have two completely different words. The first, V’shinantam ושננתם literally means to teach repeatedly. Its root is שנן meaning to sharpen or focus. While V’limadtem ולמדתמ literally means to teach but has a connotation of creating a habit. The root למד means to learn for practical use and ethical behavior, and is also the root of the word Talmud. So the first one, ושננתם appears to be the more extreme of the two. Why might that be?
Since the first paragraph is written in the singular, it is understood to be talking to the individual. So when it comes to teaching your children Torah, it is your responsibility to make sure they really get it. Clearly, a parent is more likely to be more involved with the quality of their children’s education, so that makes sense. Meanwhile the second paragraph is written in the plural, so it is understood to be talking to the community. It is the community’s responsibility to make sure there is an education system and that there is a culture of learning. However, it’s not your job to make sure so-and-so’s kid is as educated as yours .
This answer works. Except there is one more difference in the two paragraphs that I neglected to mention. In the first paragraph the mitzvah of tefillin is listed after v’shinantam, while in the second paragraph tefillin comes immediately before v’limadtem. Why this change?
An idea I learned from a Rabbi Motti Neuburger lecture relates that the difference between v’shinantam and v’limadtem isn’t just the quality of the teaching, but the quality of the teacher.
He says that a person who takes it upon themselves to dedicate their life to not just learning Torah, but making it their mission… that person plays by different rules. According to him (in the words of the Sifri), the first paragraph of Shema is actually only talking about a person totally engrossed in Torah learning. For them, they are not concerned with the matters of the world and so they can accomplish the mitzvah of b’chol meodecha, dedicating all their resources to Hashem. For that individual, reward and punishment do not apply because everything that happens to them is a message from Hashem and they can say with a full heart “gam zula tova” everything is for the good. And so even though they do the mitzvah of tefillin, they don’t need to elevate spiritually before they learn. They’re already there.
However, that is a VERY high level. For the rest of us, we’re part of the klal, the community of Israel and the second paragraph of Shema applies to us. For most of us, our learning Torah is habitual, but we’re maybe not breaking our teeth on a gemara or losing sleep to complete a learning seder (schedule). For us, we’re doing mitzvahs, but we’re still involved in the world so it would be impossible to dedicate all our resources to Hashem, so meodecha doesn’t appear. We may need the dangling carrot of reward or the occasional redirect to keep us on track. And we definitely need the mitzvah of tefillin to elevate ourselves for proper Torah study.
Is It Okay to be Second Best?
Is it a problem to be in the second category? Of course not. There’s no shame there. Being a part of the community is essential. And the goal is growth, not a first place medal. The Shema is for all of Israel, regardless of which paragraph you identify with. However, it is important to remember that the distinction has to do with how well one wants to learn the Torah, not which category you belong to. Picking a book, verse of Psalms, or a single mitzvah and learning everything you can about that idea, inside and out, with all the commentary, etc, that is a wonderful thing to achieve. Maybe pick one thing you want to really sharpen. Who knows, maybe you’ll find yourself falling into the first category for things as well.