Devarim 5779 – Hearing and Listening are Two Very Different Things

By: Iris Sheppard

We’re in the 5th and last book of the Torah. This book represents the speeches of Moses in the last month of his life. He addresses the next generation, those who will – as he will not – be destined to cross the Jordan and enter the Promised Land.

Parashat D’varim consists mostly of Moses’ historical review of events from the end of the Revelation at Sinai through most of the Israelites’ journey in the desert. Having just reached the end of our 40 years of wandering, we begin it again through words.

The concept of retelling and reliving through words is core to our Jewish tradition.  Last week we were reminded of oral tradition and oral law in the D’Var Torah from Michael Carr. We are a people of words. Words and retelling can be both vital and futile. Here (h –e –r –e) is where hearing and listening come into play.

Moses spends a month – 30 days – speaking to the people. For a guy who described himself to God at the Burning Bush as “slow of speech and slow of tongue” (Exodus 4:10), he has become someone that now has an awful lot to say.

Hearing requires our ears while listening requires our mind.

Both involve the use of our ears, but the results are often different.  Hearing is one of our five senses; it is a sense that helps you receive sound waves and noise by ears. It is the ability to perceive sounds.

Listening happens when you understand the sounds your ear heard. It is the ability to receive and interpret the message transferred by those sounds – those words. It requires a conscious action the part of a person; listening happens by paying attention to the words and sentences of the speaker.

  • Hearing is physical; listening is psychological.
  • Hearing in an inborn ability; listening is a learned skill.
  • Hearing involves the use of one sense. Listening often involves all five.

Words are the principal instrument with which we construct reality. We experience everything through the filter of words: words we tell ourselves, words we tell each other, and especially, words we tell our children.

The Torah accords to words the power of creation (“God said: ‘Let there be light,’” Gen. 1:3). With such awesome power comes a responsibility to take care with our words. We do that by repeating some words and minimizing others. Not all words are equal.

Parashat D’varim begins by emphasizing: Eileh had’varim, “These are the words” (Deut. 1:1). That is, these words specifically, words Moshe Rabbeinu employed when he “undertook to expound this teaching,” (Deut. 1:5). With these words; these and not other ones, Moses made clear the meaning of this Torah; this one, and not another one.

The text implies a tension between “these words,” and “this Torah;” since if “this Torah” was received at Sinai already, why do we need “these words” of repetition and clarification to construct a sacred reality? This tension sparked a debate between the medieval Torah commentaries of Nachmanides (1194-1270) and Abarbanel (1437-1508). Nachmanides insists that Deuteronomy contains a new teaching, a second Revelation for the generation born in the wilderness, and that “these are the words” means “the new words” that had not yet been revealed. Abarbanel, on the other hand, focuses on the elucidation of “this Torah” and claims that Deuteronomy is not the giving of a new set of laws or revelations, but the construction of a commentary on those already implied in the earlier Revelation at Sinai.

In his 30-days of teaching in the land of Moab, across the Jordan, Moses uses his words to construct a new reality for our people on the verge of returning to their land, reclaiming their freedom from slavery and idolatry, and for the first time, building the Jewish civilization organized around the Torah and mitzvot.

Moses wants to wake up their senses. His words are designed to strengthen the ability to adapt to new realities and to reinforce the need to share the stories and experiences with every successive generation. It requires all to remember and uphold that which guided us through the past.

I’m reminded of my own experiences as a parent. There are so many things I wanted to impart to my children – lessons, stories, experiences, and more. I used words – sometimes sparingly and at other times with great abandon. There were words of love and comfort. There were reminders and warnings.

For Moses – time is against him. He knows he is not going to be with this generation much longer. It is no wonder he wants to cover every important idea, bit of knowledge and advice while he still has the chance.

Thank you for hearing me out today. If there was cause for you to listen – may your thoughts and reflections be meaningful ones.

Shabbat Shalom.