In contrast, the Sages equated reciting the daily Shema with taking on “the yoke of the kingdom of heaven” (m.Berakhot 2.2).
Rabbi Nechunia ben Hakanah says: If someone takes upon himself the yoke of Torah—the yoke of government and the yoke of worldly responsibilities are removed from him. But if someone throws off the yoke of Torah from himself—the yoke of government and the yoke of worldly responsibilities are placed upon him. (Avot 3.6 in the Artscroll Siddur)
R. Nechunia doesn’t mean that Torah totally exempts us from government and worldly responsibilities, but that we’re no longer bound to them. We have a higher loyalty and a higher accountability.
The yoke of the kingdom and the yoke of Torah are largely overlapping, and one thing is common to both: humility. Bearing a yoke isn’t a glorious assignment. The metaphor, of course, is from agriculture, speaking of the wooden beam that joins two oxen, or (more humbling yet) two asses, so they can pull together. Worse, a similar yoke is put upon a slave to hold him or her in bondage.
The yoke of government brings one into servitude in the end, but in the meantime it provides the illusion of power, and victory. The current political race, like all such contests, appeals to pride and self-interest and the lust for dominance at least as much as to patriotism. In contrast, when we take on the yoke of the kingdom by reciting the Shema early each morning, we humbly declare that Hashem alone is our Lord and that he gets all the power, victory, and accomplishment. Thus we set ourselves to serve Hashem and not self the rest of the day. As we take on the yoke of the kingdom we are declaring:
- My time, energy, and resources don’t belong to me, but to the King whom I serve.
- As one yoked to his kingdom I’ll seek opportunities to serve it this very day.
- Whatever good I accomplish will be a sign of the King’s goodness, not mine.
Messiah Yeshua speaks of another yoke, his yoke, which encompasses both the yoke of Torah and the yoke of the Kingdom: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Mt. 11:29–30 NRSV).
Messiah’s yoke doesn’t replace the yoke of the kingdom, but fulfills it, by joining us directly to the King. And the King characterizes himself and his yoke with the term humility. Just as Yeshua lived not for self but for Hashem and for others, so will those who are yoked to him. His yoke releases us from “the yoke of government and the yoke of worldly responsibilities” that R. Nechunia noted, and also from the yoke which is particularly onerous in today’s world, the yoke of self. Messiah’s yoke alone will free us to find rest for our souls.