The age of 2 has notoriously been dubbed “The Terrible Twos” as toddlers begin to assert their independence. As if on cue, my sweet granddaughter has become adamant about doing things “all by herself.”
One of her most popular refrains is “Self do it!” Her solution for tasks that she’d prefer to push off, such as bed time, is simply, “Mommy, go away!”
But while one minute she is stridently trying to do things on her own, the next minute she’ll eagerly snuggle up to have a book read to her. She will declare an appreciative “tank you” when I dress her doll after her own frustrating attempt, but will stubbornly refuse to hold my hand while climbing the staircase. The look of victory in her eyes after she reaches the top is priceless.
From about six months of age, the seed for independence is sewn and continues to grow, for some of us fiercely. Independence doesn’t mean that we don’t need others, but rather, that we contribute our fair share, our own efforts, to our relationships and life’s circumstances.
In this week’s Torah portion, we read the second paragraph of the Shema prayer, while last week’s Torah portion contained the verses of its first paragraph.
We are obligated to recite the Shema, a central prayer, every morning and evening. It contains fundamental beliefs about loving and serving G‑d, learning and teaching Torah, and practicing mitzvot. Much of the second paragraph, however, seems to repeat the first, with a few important differences.
The second chapter speaks about the reward and punishment we will earn by following the commandments, whereas the first leaves this out entirely. In addition, the first chapter addresses the Jewish people in the second person singular (you), as individuals, while the second chapter speaks to us in the second person plural (you, collectively).
There are two aspects to cultivating our relationship with G‑d, and each is reflective in the respective paragraph of the Shema. The first is G‑d’s gift of connection to us, without which we would never be able to have a relationship with Him. The second is our efforts and struggles, using our finite capabilities—our intellectual and emotional selves—to reach higher and come closer to G‑d.
Reward is only mentioned in the second paragraph because by definition, a reward is something that must be earned by our own merits, not bestowed as a gift. Only once we sweat for something can we really experience the joy of its accomplishment.
Moreover, by struggling to improve our moral character, we become fuller beings. In working on any new endeavor, we develop other parts of our personality—resilience, determination, empathy, generosity. We become not singular beings with one gift, but pluralistic, multidimensional beings.
The second chapter of the Shema teaches us that while the fruits of our labors may be less glorious and less brilliant, they are more real.
Just ask my 2-year-old granddaughter.