(I want to attribute Rabbi Morris Adler zt”l, Dr. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, and Rav Kook zt”l, all of whose writings are reflected in this sermon.)
After thirty plus years in the rabbinate, I’m challenged by the fact that I don’t want to repeat myself. I’m not one of these rabbis that go into an old file and take a sermon out, but I know that when I read a parshah from the Torah, I am often moved by an idea…and in fact, that very idea may have moved me before. And so, I might be repeating myself.
If I am, and you know it, then I’ll feel pretty good this week. Because the very theme is about listening.
If I am repeating myself, and you don’t remember, then we both have another chance!
There’s something else about repetition…Some of my greatest teachers used to repeat stories…older people do that. And it’s not always bad, because repetition does help us learn and remember.
Last week we read one of the most important verses and it may contain the most important word of the entire Jewish tradition:
Shema Yisrael Adonai Ehloheinu Adonai Echad.
“Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one,” and “It shall come to pass if you surely listen to My commandments which I am commanding you today, to love the Lord your God and to serve Him with all your heart and all your soul” – the openings of the first and second paragraphs of the Shema. It also appears in the first line of the parsha: “It shall come to pass, if you listen to these laws.”
The word, of course, is shema.
Shema doesn’t just mean “hear.” It means many things: to hear, to listen, to pay attention, to understand, to internalize, to respond, and to obey. Bible scholars refer to it as a motif-word. In the book of Devarim, it appears 92 times – more than in any other word of the Torah.
Time and again in the last month of his life Moses told the people, Shema: listen, heed, and pay attention. Hear what I am saying. Hear what God is saying. Listen to what he wants from us. If you would only listen…
I think there is something ironic about this in our central sacred test, because socially, Jews are a people with a lot to say. The Jews I know are rarely quiet about their ideas and opinions, and we know there are lots of jokes about this. One simply needs to listen to the volume of conversation in a room filled with Jews…
And yet, theologically, Judaism is a religion of listening. This is one of its most original contributions to civilization.
In a sermon essay by Morris Adler zt”l – one of the great rabbis of the last generation – he pointed out something earlier scholars of Judaism used to consider in their work. The twin foundations on which Western culture was built were ancient Greece and ancient Israel.
They were very different. Greece was a profoundly visual culture. Its greatest achievements had to do with the eye, with seeing; it produced great art, sculpture and architecture. Theatrical performances and the Olympic Games were spectacles – performances that were watched.
This idea – that seeing is knowing – remains a dominant idea even today. We speak of insight, foresight and hindsight. We offer an observation. We adopt a perspective. We illustrate. We illuminate. We shed light on an issue. When we understand something, we say, “I see.”
Judaism offered this radical alternative. It is faith based on a God we cannot see, a God who cannot be represented visually. The very act of making a graven image – a visual symbol – is a form of idolatry. As Moses reminded the people in last week’s parsha, when the Israelites had a direct encounter with God at Mount Sinai, “You heard the sound of words, but saw no image; there was only a voice.” (Deut. 4:12). God communicates in sounds, not sights. He speaks. He commands. He calls. He says.
That is why the supreme religious act is reflected in Shema. When God speaks, we listen. When He commands, we try to obey.
I want to personalize this a little…
When you think of what a rabbi does that has any importance, you may think about him or her speaking on the bimah.
When I think about the most important moments in my rabbinic work, I know speaking is important, but I am absolutely certain, that it is the time I spend listening that has the greatest meaning. And what I know is that much more than hearing a sermon, my congregation, you want to know that I listen to you…
And I also have learned that when I spend time with people in distress, what they most often need is to be heard.
After trauma, after death, people want to tell the story in detail.
I was with the sons of a holocaust survivor and they complained that their father told them stories over and again…And I knew one thing – their father needed to tell those stories, over and again. And they needed to listen.
And usually when I am with a couple, and particularly a wife, who is in distress in her marriage, the greatest complaint is…He doesn’t hear me, he doesn’t listen to me…
I have learned the most effective form of conflict resolution comes when you sit and listen – to your loved ones or to members of another group or nation. Sometimes rather than shouting or blocking, listening is more effective.
Listening creates empathy.
This is the meaning of the expression, “I hear you.”
Rav Kook zt”l has taught that in the Talmud, all the metaphors of understanding are based not on seeing, but on hearing. Ta shema, “come and hear.” Ka mashma lan, “It teaches us this.” Shema mina, “Infer from this.” Lo shemiyah lei, “He did not agree.” A traditional teaching is called shamaytta, “that which was heard.” And so on. All of these are variations on the word shema.
When you see something, you can look and stare and remain detached. But listening is a form of engagement. And so a relationship needs hearing, listening for intimacy…
When kids act out, when children scream for attention, more than anything else, they want to be heard.
And so that’s why in the Torah we learn that we cannot see God, but we can hear him and he hears us. It is through the word – speaking and listening – that we can have a relationship with God as our parent, as our partner, as our sovereign. The One who loves us and whom we love. You cannot demonstrate God scientifically. Trying to prove the existence of God logically or scientifically is a mistaken enterprise. God is not an object but a subject. The Jewish mode is to relate to God in intimacy and love, as well as awe and reverence…and we do it by listening, listening to the words.
There is something profoundly spiritual about listening. When you go outside, the beauty of nature is not just about what you see, it is also about what you hear. And we don’t pay enough attention to this.
Jonathan Sacks wrote,
“In Judaism we believe that our relationship with God is an ongoing tutorial in our relationships with other people. How can we expect God to listen to us if we fail to listen to our spouse, our children, or those affected by our work? And how can we expect to encounter God if we have not learned to listen.”
On Mount Horeb, God taught Elijah that He was not in the whirlwind, the earthquake or the fire but in the kol demamah dakah, the “still, small voice” that I define as a voice you can only hear if you are listening.
If we really listen, if we hear, we become much wiser, yes, much kinder…and I believe, much more loving.
So may we all promise as we come closer to Elul and a month of self-reflection that we will try to hear and listen just a little better, and certainly a little more. It will make us wiser and make us much more loving.