In this past week’s Parsha, as Moshe continues giving his final speech to the Jewish People shortly before his death, the Torah tells us, V’haya Eikev T’shmaun”– If you will hear these laws. In the context of that verse, Moshe tells the Jewish people, if they will listen to these laws and precepts, G-d in turn, will shower them with blessings.
Later on in the Parsha we see the second paragraph of the Shema, which says, v’haya im shamoa tishmau, or, “if you will surely hear.” In last week’s parsha, Moshe formulates the timeless mission statement of the Jewish people, when we are told, “Shema Yisrael, Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Echad.” “Hear oh Israel, Hashem is our G-d, Hashem is One.”
The great Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, of blessed memory, observed that the word “Shema” appears in one form or another no less than 92 times in Sefer Devarim alone. This, in the book where Moshe prepares his people for carrying on without him, and for preserving the Torah as they go on into the Land of Israel, the Jewish people are enjoined to be “Shomea.”
But what does this mean? Honestly, it depends on which translation you look at. One translation understands our verse to mean “if you hearken to these precepts.” Yet another one reads, “if you completely obey these laws.” A third says, “if you pay attention to these laws.” Yet another says, ” if you heed these ordinances.” And a final one says, “Because ye hear these judgments.” And, a quick look at the story of the tower of Babel, found at the end of Parshas Noach implies the word means “understand.” As a punishment for trying to rebel against G-d, G-d mixes up the languages of the people, so they won’t be “yish’mau” each other, which clearly connotes a language of understanding and comprehending.
Regardless of which translation one takes of this term, it clearly is very important. Firstly, because we are called on to be shomea 92 times, and secondly, because when King Solomon is given one wish in the Book of Kings, he asks G-d for a “lev shomeah,” a listening, understanding heart.
But why is listening so vital, so important that it is so heavily emphasized? To this, Rabbi Sacks writes the following:
God wants us to understand the laws He has commanded us. He wants us to reflect on why this law, not that. He wants us to listen, to reflect, to seek to understand, to internalise and to respond. He wants us to become a listening people.
We worship a God who cannot be seen; and making sacred images, icons, is absolutely forbidden. In Judaism we do not see God; we hear God. Knowing is a form of listening.
It follows that in Judaism listening is a deeply spiritual act. To listen to God is to be open to God. That is what Moses is saying throughout Devarim: “If only you would listen.” So it is with leadership – indeed with all forms of interpersonal relationship. Often the greatest gift we can give someone is to listen to them.
Listening is the key virtue of the religious life. That is what Moses was saying throughout Devarim. If we want God to listen to us, we have to be prepared to listen to Him. And if we learn to listen to Him, then we eventually learn to listen to our fellow humans: the silent cry of the lonely, the poor, the weak, the vulnerable, the people in existential pain.
Now the question that must be addressed, is how can we become better listeners?
The key, writes Rabbi Ruvein Leuchter, is to take interest in what other people are telling us: He writes:
(My son told me): “Do you know why I stayed connected over the years? Because for as long as I can remember, you were always interested in what I had to say.” Every day, we converse with family, friends, and colleagues. We hear them, we respond to them, but most of the time we don’t really listen to them. We neglect their human need to be heard, and more important, to be deemed worth listening to. If you’re interested in what someone has to say, it shows him he’s important in your eyes. That’s a message everyone needs. Giving that message can lift a person up; withholding it can break him.
But what if what the person is saying genuinely is of no interest to us? Rabbi Leuchter describes that all it takes is a shift in perspective. We can decide to actively take interest in what the person is telling us, and expect it to be interesting, and that can totally change how we listen to others.
Additionally, as Ben Zoma tells us in Pirkei Avos, a wise person is someone who learns from everyone. If we approach every conversation, even potentially boring ones, with a zest for learning something new, we can tap into a new found interest in what another person has to say.
But, Rabbi Leuchter writes, in order for us to truly take interest in what others have to say, we need to learn to stop taking interest in everything else going on around us when conversing with others. Are we really fully present when our children are telling us about their day, or something interesting that happened? Or are we scrolling through our phones at the same time? I recall one time having a meeting with someone, and the entire time he was simultaneously engaged with his phone. It was very off-putting to say the least. For us to learn to truly listen, we need to silence the noise around us when engaged in the art of listening.
To conclude, we ought to hearken to the lesson of Moshe’s very leadership: As Rabbi Sacks brilliantly puts it, “in the encounter at the Burning Bush, when God summoned Moses to be a leader, Moses replied, “I am not a man of words, not yesterday, not the day before, not from the first time You spoke to Your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue” (Ex. 4:10). Why would God choose a man who found it difficult to speak to lead the Jewish people? Perhaps because one who cannot speak learns how to listen.“