We have an established evening routine in our house. The timing of it may vary a little bit, but once Gabby has brushed her teeth she chooses two books which are read to her and then we sing her the Shema, after which she can request another song or two. Each and every night she hears the words of Torah as the Shema is sung to her before she goes to bed.
Many people regard the Shema as our most important prayer. For the Rabbis this was not the case. They saw the Amidah, our standing prayer, as the central prayer of our liturgy, so that they called it hatefillah – the prayer. But the Shema has established itself as a central prayer and one that many people know how to recite, some even refer to it as the “watchword of our faith.”
We can imagine that the centrality of this prayer comes from its opening words as we affirm the oneness of God: Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad - Hear O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is one. In this verse, from this week’s Torah portion, we affirm the oneness of God and God’s dominion.
There is no fanfare before these words are recited and it is unclear in the context that these words would establish themselves as such a central prayer thousands of years later. On the one hand perhaps this affirmation of God's oneness is why this prayer is so important. But I actually think the real focus of this prayer is aspirational.
As we say the words of the Shema we aspire as a community to reach a point where we do love God “with all of our hearts, with all of our souls, and with all of our might.” It is hard to do, but then the Shema offers the necessary steps to achieve this aim. We must take these words and say them when we're at home, when we're on the way, when we lie down, when we rise up; and then we should bind them on our hands, have them as a symbol on our foreheads and inscribe them on the doorposts of our homes and on our gates.
The Shema lays out these steps for us to achieve love of God.
But I think the most important step, and the reason why this prayer is so important in our liturgy, is because this is the prayer within which we say “teach it to your children.” The Shema is not simply about us and our quest to love God it is about the fact that we share that quest with the next generation; we share that obligation with our children. The Shema is the prayer that we pass on from generation to generation, and in so doing we bring those children into the circle of love that is shared with God. In this way it is the perfect prayer to recite when we rise up and when we lie down, going to bed secure in the love shared between us and God.