Sign In Forgot Password

Listen, REALLY Listen!

08/26/2022 06:13:30 PM


Mike Haas

Torah Study - Parshat Eikev (Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25)

  • Let me be so bold as to suggest that the prayer SHEMA collectively contains the most important words in Judaism, but SHEMA is, for many reasons one of the least understood words in our liturgy. The two most famous occurrences of the word SHEMA are in last week's parsha Et’chanan: (Deut 6:4) "Hear O Israel שְׁמַ֖ע יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל, the Lord our God, the Lord is one," and in this week's parsha Eikev (Deut 11:13) "It shall come to pass if you surely listen וְהָיָ֗ה אִם שָׁמֹ֤עַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ֙ to My commandments which I am commanding you today, to love the Lord your God and to serve God with all your heart and all your soul". There’s also another appearance of the root of this powerful word in the first line of this week’s parsha Eikev (Deut 7:12): "It shall come to pass, if you listen וְהָיָ֣ה עֵ֣קֶב תִּשְׁמְע֗וּן to these laws and keep them and perform, that the Lord, your God, will keep for you the covenant and the kindness that God swore to your ancestors.” – BTW, these also happen to be the openings of the traditional first and second paragraphs of the Shema. What is it about this word that makes it necessary to repeat it over&over?
  • What is more: Shema שְׁמַ֖ע is not only one of the least understood words in Torah, according to Rabbi Sacks, it’s actually untranslatable; kind of like Shalom (does Shalom mean hello, good-bye, peace, wholeness? Why yes, yes it does). So, שְׁמַ֖ע means many things: to hear, to heed, to listen, to pay attention, to understand, to reflect, to internalize and to respond. BUT, it DOES NOT mean obey.  As Rabbi Sacks points out, there is no ancient Hebrew word in the entire Torah that translates to “obey”.  Reflect on this for just a moment….   [5 second pause] Did you hear that? The still, small voice whispering: שְׁמַ֖ע “Shhhhhhema” “Shhhhhhema”
  • Rabbis Sacks suggests that when we encounter a word in any language that is untranslatable into our own, we are close to the beating pulse of that culture. At the most basic level, Shema שְׁמַ֖ע represents that aspect of Judaism that made it unique, most radical and (dare I say?) unheard of in its day: that God cannot be seen. HaShem can only be heard.
  • Time and again Moses warns against making or worshipping any physical representation of the Divine. Earlier in this book of the Torah Devarim (Deut 4:12) he insistently reminded the people that at Mount Sinai: “The Lord spoke to you out of the fire. You heard the sound of words but saw no form; there was only a voice”
  • Even when Moses mentions seeing, he is really talking about listening. A classic example occurs (spoiler alert!) in the opening verses of next week’s parsha: (Deut. 11:26-28): See [re’eh], I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse – the blessing if you listen [tishme’u] to the commands of the Lord your God that I am giving you today; the curse if you do not listen [lo tishme’u].
  • So, last week… Shema; this week… Shema and (spoiler alert!) next week… Shema too. Which is actually excellent timing, since, as the Jewish Paul Revere I get to shout from the bimah: “Elul is coming! Elul is coming!” J (This year that happens the evening of 27 Aug) And what’s our minhag or Jewish tradition that we can partake of each day of Elul? Right! Shema! Hear! Listen! Absorb! Take into our hearts & souls the sound of the Shofar, to help us prepare as we approach the High Holy Days. (Btw: Margaret will be sending emails with links to two videos: one of the Shofar being blown & another explaining the meaning of the different Shofar blasts, so you can participate in this minhag)
  • The Rabbis point out that the root of the word Shema – shin, mem, eye-in - appears 92 times in Devarim (Deuteronomy) alone - the last of the Five Books of Moses, more than all of the other books of the Torah combined! It is, in fact, one of the key words of Judaism as a whole (which is pretty amusing, when you think how much time we spend talking, arguing and striving to get our points across instead of listening to each other...I’m just sayin’ 😏)
  • Doesn’t it really sound like Moses is trying to get a point across TO US before the end of the Torah?  Maybe it’s because this most important verb, highlighted 92 times in Devarim alone, is the key to our relationships with both God and our fellow humans – in fact, I’d suggest that it’s key to our relationship with all of God’s Creation – LISTEN!! SHEMA!! (Have you ever sat still in the forest or by a babbling brook or on the seashore or gazing at a sunrise or sunset or have you ever internalized the crack of thunder following the lightening and listened with all your heart, and all your soul and with all your might, even if just for the briefest of moments? Then you know what I’m talking about!  You’ve heard the still small voice!) HaShem can only be heard when we SHEMA!, listen for the “still small voice” as Elijah taught us.
  • Let’s go back into this week’s parsha, where we see in (Deut. 11:13) the opening line of the traditional second paragraph of the Shema (absent from Reform prayer books – that’s a different d’var Torah for another time).  How does it read? Listen to Moses’ double emphasis: “If you [shamo’a tishme’u] my commands with which I charge you today, to love the Lord your God and worship Him with all your heart and with all your soul” A more forceful translation might be the one suggested by Rabbi Reuven Firestone: “ If then, you listen, yes, you really heed My commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the Eternal your God and serving [God] with all your heart and soul” or more simply:  “If you listen – and I mean really listen.”
  • As I mentioned earlier, the word Shema שְׁמַ֖ע is central to the two places in the Torah that form the first two paragraphs of the prayer we call the Shema, one in last week’s parsha, the other in this week’s. In a fascinating footnote, Rabbi Sacks says: “Technically, reciting the Shema is not an act of prayer at all. It is a fundamentally different type of action: it is an act of Talmud Torah, of learning Torah. In prayer, we speak to God. In study we listen to God” I have mentioned this to our Congregation during Shabbat services many times over the years that anyone who can read&sing the V’Ahavtah is actually reading/chanting & hopefully, studying Torah – a mitzvah within a mitzvah!!
  • So, what’s the point?  How does this lesson of the Shema שְׁמַ֖ע apply to everyday life? The point is that Moses is teaching us, through this incredible focus on listening as one of our most important Jewish action words, that שְׁמַ֖ע (listening) is how we create a pathway that enables us to tune into God’s voice, to tune into God’s Creation and in particular, to create sacred bonds with those parts of God’s Creation made in the Divine image.  In fact, truly listening שְׁמַ֖ע to another human being is in and of itself a mitzvah – why? Love your neighbor! Love the stranger! Listening is an act of selfless love. Rabbi Sacks goes so far as to suggest that it is an act of opening ourselves up, to being brave enough to allow ourselves to become vulnerable and to risk truly connecting with another. This willingness to open ourselves up and to be vulnerable is essential to our humanity, because … wait for it… life is NOT all about us. WHAT?! We are NOT the center of the universe?! (HUH?!)
  • Hence a potentially life-changing idea: Listening is the greatest gift we can give to another human being. As Rabbi Sacks wrote: to be listened to, to be heard, is to know that someone else takes me seriously. It is a redemptive act.
  • But it is also the greatest gift we can give ourselves because it puts us in touch at a very deep level, not only with the very spirit (Ru’Ach) of other people, it gives us the pathway to put ourselves in touch with the Still Small Voice, with all of HaShem’s Creation (including people) and with the One Adonaii Eloheinu.  שְׁמַ֖ע Shema Yisoeal Adonaii Eloheinu Adonai Echad!
  • The Rabbis teach that listening is a profoundly spiritual act. It can also be painful. It is comfortable not to have to listen, not to be challenged, not to be moved outside our comfort zone. So, I challenge each of us to leave here today and commit to taking the next step, perhaps even what we might call a quantum leap. Listening is, as Moses instructed, at the very heart of our relationship with God and by extension all of God’s Creation. As Rabbi Amy Ross wrote: “In our duty to care for God's earth and the bounty of God's Creation, we must not allow ourselves to be complacent. We must not be satisfied with the world as it is, but rather strive to make it healthier for ourselves and our children. Even as we eat our fill, we must remain hungry, doing all that we can to nurture this beautiful world around us.”  We must שְׁמַ֖ע Shema to connect, we must connect to care, we must care to commit to joining with HaShem as partners in the on-going work of creating a Tikkun Olam, a healed and whole world… by listening to one person at a time and by listening for the Still Small Voice… SHEMA! שְׁמַ֖ע “Shhhhhhema” “Shhhhhhema” [pause…]
  • Tekiah! [trumpeting sound mimicking a Shofar] Elul is coming! Elul is coming! (I love being the Jewish Paul Revere this year J) The Hebrew calendar alerts us that the month of Elul, which precedes Rosh HaShannah, is rapidly approaching (evening of August 27th this year) As we prepare ourselves for the upcoming HHDs, it’s time to start listening, to awakening and to finding, moving beyond and getting outside our comfort zone, because as Neale Donald Walsch wrote: “Growth begins at the end of our comfort zone.”  Regardless of what is behind us, the future holds tremendous promise, if we but heed, hearken, listen… SHEMA! SHEMA! SHEMA! May we have the strength to take that risk, so that we may reap the rewards that come from growing closer to HaShem and our fellow human beings through the power of SHEMA!  

Kain ye-hee ratzon! So may it be God’s Will!  Baruch HaShem! 


D’Var Acher

According to Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, our core is wrapped up in the six words of the Sh'ma [say the words slowly]

But then, if it only takes two Hebrew words to say that G‑d is one - Adonai Echad - Why do we need six? 

Rabbi Freeman suggests it’s because, first, we must turn our ears inward to truly “Shema”. When we do this, THEN we will “hear” – we will truly Shema – we understand that this Oneness is not knowledge learned from teachers, discerned from observations, or intuited from a sense of wonder.

No—this sense of Oneness is what we own - it is the furnace that burns within the powerhouse of our Jewish souls, the oxygen that breathes within every facet of our being, the unstoppable current of everyday life. It is within us, at our very core.

The knowledge, the tradition, the contemplation—all this is vital and necessary: To awaken within us that which we knew before we were even born. Remember, the Sages teach that every Jew for all time was present at Mt Sinai.

And so, since my focus has been on Shema, I ask that you take this upcoming month of Elul and start really Shema-ing. According to Rabbi Freeman, Sh'ma means that We Learn, We contemplate, We grasp, and then We are prepared to listen deep inside for the Still Small Voice.

May we find, by committing ourselves to deeply embracing this mitzvah of Shema…  Shema-ing to the blasts of the Shofar… Shema-ing to our fellow human beings… and Shema-ing for the Still Small Voice that is within and all around us… may we find and touch the Oneness that unites us with all humanity, indeed with all of HaShem’s Creation and then devote ourselves to making the world a better place, to working to create a Tikkun Olam, a more whole, peaceful and unified world.

Kain ye-hee ratzon! So may it be God’s Will! Baruch HaShem!  Shabbat Shalom!

Fri, February 23 2024 14 Adar I 5784