Why does the very first Mishnah in the Talmud start with the mitzvah of reading the Shema?
Two very different answers are given by the Vilna Gaon and the Riaz(on the Rif). The Gro (Shnos Eliyahu) says that the reason is because the very first mitzvah that an individual encounters after he turns bar mitzvah is the mitzvah of reading Shema. A boy who reaches the age of 13 at his first day after bar mitzvah is obligated in the Shema as soon as the night falls.. The Riaz, on the other hand, points out that Unity of Hashem is the foundation of Judaism and of all mitzvos. He explains that Shas begins with Keri'as Shema because Shema is the acceptance of the total dominion of Hashem and the expression of one's fear of Him. "Reishis Chachmah Yir'as Hashem" -- "the fear of G-d is the beginning of wisdom" (Tehilim 111:10), and therefore it is appropriate to begin one's quest for wisdom in Torah by learning about Shema, the expression of the fear of G-d. "If a person's fear of G-d precedes his wisdom, his wisdom will endure" (Avos 3:9).That is why the very first Mishnah in Shas opens up with the mitzvah of reading the Shema.
This two very different approaches remind me of the classic story.
A chasid and a non-chasid where learning the story of Rabbi Yonasan ben Uziel in Sukka 20. After speaking out the passage that informs us how birds that flew over the head of Rabbi Yonasan were burnt, both fell silent, contemplating.
"What are you thinking ?", asked one of another.
The chasid said:" I am in or of the holiness of the great Rabbi Yonasan. And you?"
" I was trying to figure out whether R Yonasan would be liable for damages if the birds were privately owned".
Humorous, but in many ways also reflective of two different approaches to learning, that of Nefesh Hachaim versus Baal Shem Tov.
Rav Zevin in his Sipurei Chassidim records for us a classic Story of R. Zusha. When the students of the Maggid wanted to set up a group chavrusa to learn Shas, they had some concerns about including R. Zushya. He prevailed upon them to accept him. What happened? As soon as they read the first words of the first Mishnah in Brochos, he was overwhelmed with enthusiasm and disturbed their learning. He jumped up on the table, gesticulating wildly, repeating over and over, "Meimesay korin es Shema. From Fear of Hashem (Meimas Ka...) Is how you read the Shema." They had to ask him not to attend.
Of course, this two different approaches to learning, one focused on Torah and the other focused on dveykus thtough Torah go further back in history than the Vilna Gaon and Baal Shem Tov. Rashi in Sukkah says that the birds were burnt because of the holiness of RabbiYonasan ben Uziel. Tosafos says that is was because angels came to listen to his Torah.