(I actually wrote and FB-posted this yesterday.)
Today is the start of a 7 1/2-year worldwide Jewish learning activity called "Daf Yomi" or the "Daily Page." In sync, Jews everywhere of all kinds of backgrounds read and think each weekday about the exact same page of the Babylonian Talmud -- alone or in study groups or through podcasts etc.
I haven't decided if I'm going to see this through for 7 1/2 years, but for the time being I'm going to use it as an opportunity to at least skim each day this very essential, one-of-a-kind, completely strange book in Judaism. As much as I can I'll post some insights from the daily page. Maybe I'll do it here, or if you're interested e-mail or message me and I'll set up a dedicated list or channel.
Before I write about today's page -- let me say in the spirit of what I posted a week ago that Jewish study is an essential counterpart to Jewish pride and Jewish self-protection. It doesn't have to be Talmud, but studying Torah in some way gives you a voice right next to whatever Torah you are studying. Torah study lets you do the talking, and lets you (challenges you to) figure out the Jew you ought to be.
Today's page in the Talmud, the very first one (Berachot/Blessings, page 2, the books all start on page 2), asks the seemingly arcane question of what the time period is for reciting the Sh'ma every evening. The Sh'ma is a basic declaration about the unity and uniqueness of the Divine, taken from the Torah. The Talmud doesn't talk about what the Sh'ma is first, what it means. Instead it asks this technical-ish question and seems to answer it with a series of inside-baseball-ish details about priests in the Second Temple and purification rituals.
What struck me when I studied this page a few weeks ago with my chavruta (study partner), Rabbi Dan Ross from Central Synagogue in New York, is that on this page the Talmud threads together a bunch of things that happen in life at the start of the evening: reciting this prayer, reading a few passages from the Torah, priests eating meals in the Temple provided by the community before the Temple was destroyed by the Romans, poor people eating a daily meal provided by the community, individuals having Shabbat dinner, going to a party that lasts all evening, the purification of a priest or something called "the purification of the day."
To me, the Talmud is indicating that each time we say the Sh'ma, we're not really talking about the oneness of God unless we're really meditating on the oneness of all those other things. We're not really fulfilling our obligation to live in the glow of God's unity if we're not figuring out how to fulfill the other obligations related to giving, purification, feeding, celebrating in daily life, providing for our spiritual institutions.