Mel Lawson August 2019
I’d like to dedicate this Dvar Torah to the memory of my mum Faige bat Shimon Halevi
Cast your mind back to Shemot Chapter 4 verse 10 to the story of Moshe at the burning bush talking to God and saying “LO ISH D’VARIM ANOCHI” ....... “I am not a man of words -..................... I find it difficult to speak and find the right language”.
Fast forward 40 years to the book of Devarim and Moshe is standing on the east bank of the Jordan addressing the entire Jewish people before they pass into the Land of Israel without him. “AYLEH HAD’VARIM ASHER DIBER MOSHE EL KOL YISRAEL” - these are the words that Moshe spoke to all Israel. He speaks to the assembled masses using the most eloquent and visionary of words.
The book of Devarim contains three discourses given by Moshe. In the parsha of Ekev, Moshe continues his second discourse telling the people “if you listen to the laws, safeguard and keep them, God will love you, bless you and make you numerous”. He implores them to be confident in driving out idolaters and idolatrous nations. He tells them to remember everything God did for them during their 40 years in the desert. They are promised a good land but Moshe reminds them not to forget God when they have good lives full of plenty. Just in case they were feeling over confident Moshe tells them that God will remove the wicked from the land of Israel not because of the virtue of the Children of Israel but because of the wickedness of the inhabitants and because of the promise God made to Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov. God knew that they did plenty wrong in the desert and were stubborn and rebellious - things haven’t changed much!
The word Shema is one of the key words of the book of Devarim, used 82 times according to Strong’s Concordance. It is translated most frequently as hear, listen or obey but also conveys the sense of paying attention, understanding, internalising, and responding. The word is used in many interactions between man and God - when the Jews cried out in slavery in Egypt God heard their cries; when Adam and Chava heard the voice of God in Gan Eden they hid; God tells Avraham to listen to everything that Sara says to him; God hears Ishmael weeping and consoles Hagar; God hears David as he pours out his emotions in the Book of Psalms; God listens to Rachel and Chana, longing for a child, and Sara (eavesdropping on the conversation between Avraham and the visiting angels) hears that she will have a son; and, of course, the Jewish people to Moshe at Mount Sinai, NA’ASEH VENISHMA, we will do and we will listen.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains that God, in making human beings “in His image,” was creating otherness. The bridge between ourself and another is conversation: speaking and listening. Speaking and listening are forms of engagement, they create a relationship. When we speak, we tell others who and what we are. But when we listen, we allow others to tell us who they are. If we can’t listen to other people, then we certainly can’t listen to God. But listening is not the same as hearing. Hearing is the passive, continuous, physiological ability to perceive sounds. Listening requires active, psychological analysis and understanding of the sounds and cannot be done for long periods. Listening is a learned skill, requiring focus, and bringing complete awareness of what the speaker is saying. Hearing involves the ears whereas listening involves the use of more than one sense to understand the message completely and accurately.
The twin foundations on which Western culture was built were ancient Greece and ancient Israel. Greece was a profoundly visual culture. Its greatest achievements had to do with the eye, with seeing, producing some of the greatest art, sculpture and architecture the world has ever seen. Its most characteristic group events – theatrical performances and the Olympic Games – were performances that were watched. This idea – that knowing is seeing – remains the dominant metaphor in the West 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.”
Rabbi David Cohen, a disciple of Rav Kook, pointed out that in the Babylonian Talmud all the metaphors of understanding are based not on seeing but on hearing.
Hearing (and I think he means listening) touches all our faculties - our intellect in striving to understand God’s command, our will in choosing to obey, and our practical faculties in translating his intentions into deeds. Jewish law reflects this. If someone is guilty of causing a person to become blind, he must compensate him for the loss of his eyes. But if he is responsible for his deafness, he must pay him the whole value of his life, as if he had robbed him of all his faculties.
Judaism is faith in 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 Moshe reminded the people in last week’s sedra, 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”. God communicates in sounds, not sights. He speaks. He commands. He calls. That is why the supreme religious act is Shema. . When God speaks, we listen. When He commands, we try to obey.
There is actually no word in Torah that means “to obey”. In modern Hebrew a verb has been borrowed from Aramaic to fill the gap. Rabbi Sacks says that this is of the highest possible significance. It means that in Judaism there is no virtue in blind obedience. God wants us to understand and reflect on the laws He has commanded us. He wants us to listen, to seek to understand, to internalise and to respond. He wants us to become a listening people.
According to Strong’s Concordance the word Shema is found 106 times in the book of Isaiah. Isaiah brought to the King and people the message of the holiness of God at a time when idolatry seemed to be taking root in the land, and he preached justice and charity at a time when the morals of the people reached a new low. Isaiah's mission was, first of all, to admonish the people and urge them to repent and return to God.
And the prophecies recorded in the book of Jeremiah, who was God’s main spokesman in the generation of the destruction of Jerusalem’s first Temple, contain 168 occurrences of the word Shema.
The prophets are urging the people to LISTEN.
The first paragraph of the prayer we call the Shema, so called because that is its first word, was found in last week’s parsha. The second paragraph is found in our parsha and begins “if you are careful to pay heed to my commandments” and includes the word Shema not once but twice. So a more forceful translation might be “if you listen to my commandments – and I mean REALLY listen.”
<span "="">And back to Moshe, why would God choose a man to lead the Jewish people, who found it hard to speak? Perhaps because one who cannot speak learns how to listen?
A lovely article from the Office of the Chief Rabbi of South Africa explains how Moshe transformed from reluctant speaker to magnificent orator in 40 years. When God asked Moshe to present the case for the Jewish people to Pharaoh, the manner of communication was crucial. Moshe felt he did not have the speed of tongue and eloquence for the job. But subsequently, after God had taught him the Torah, Moshe became a great teacher. God’s Torah that he was relaying was so powerful and had such wisdom that Moshe had the confidence to deliver the message effectively. Through the Torah God gives us the words for understanding and constructing reality - who we are, why we are here and what is our purpose in life. Thus Moshe became a man of words.
It is no wonder then that Moshe uses the word Shema so frequently when he had his final opportunity to define the relationship between God and Israel, and the basic spiritual demands such a relationship imposes on Israel. To listen to God is to be open to God. That is what Moshe is saying throughout Devarim: “If only you would listen”.
In the words of the Dalai Lama.....
“When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.”
“If you have been, thanks for listening!”