Eikev 5781 – Hearing is Believing

By: Dr. Bill Sutker

In last week’s parashah we read the first chapter of the Shema. This week, we read the second chapter. There are many similarities between the two chapters. In fact, certain sentences are virtually identical. So why would the Torah, usually so cryptic, be so repetitious? If one examines the text closely, a significant distinction between the two chapters becomes immediately discernible. The first chapter is in the singular and the second is in the plural. Teach Torah to your son in the first, and to your children and the second.

Rashi explains that the first section is an instruction to the individual, while the second is an instruction to the community.

But why the need for both? The answer is that God speaks to the individual but God also speaks to the community. He addresses the Jew, and, also, the Jewish people. The first paragraph of the Shema teaches us that every individual is important, even critical, and God addresses every individual personally. The second paragraph reminds us that there is also a sum of all the parts; that together, individuals make up a community. And communities, too, are very important. Thus, from the very same event, the Torah teaches us this paradoxical lesson: on the one hand, the individual human being is king; while on the other, humanity reigns. So, we need both sections of the Shema. In the Torah, both are paramount, the individual and the community.

Another difference between the first and second section of the Shema is that the first simply instructs the Jew to pursue his or her relationship with God, without promising reward or threatening punishment. The second section, while instructing us to do the very same things as the first, informs us of the benefits of doing so and warns us of the consequences of transgression. It also tells us that all this is equally applicable, even in exile.

The Shema is the only prayer in our liturgy that begins with the word Shema. The prayer is so important that God wants us to make sure that we are paying attention. Before it begins, he tells us to ignore every distraction and to listen. We cover our eyes to block out any interference.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains that Shema is one of the keywords of the book of Devarim, where it appears no less than 92 times. It is, in fact, one of the keywords of Judaism as a whole. What’s more is that it is untranslatable. It means many things: to hear, to listen, to pay attention, to internalize and to respond. It is the closest that biblical Hebrew comes to a verb that means “to obey.”

But Shema also means to understand. 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, reflect, seek to understand, to internalize and to respond. He wants us to become a listening people. That is why the supreme religious act is Shema. When God speaks, we listen. When he commands, we try to obey.

Ancient Greece was a visual culture, a culture of art, architecture, theater and spectacle. Judaism, as Freud pointed out in “Moses and Monotheism”, is a non-visual culture. We worship a God who cannot be seen and making sacred images is absolutely forbidden. In Judaism, we do not see God; we hear God. Knowing is a form of listening. God wants us to listen, not just with our ears but with the deepest resources of our minds.

Obviously, there are differences between seeing and hearing—sight gives the mind the information all at once, conveying a scene, with its thousands if not millions of details, as a single imprint on the retina. The eye sees all simultaneously. The mind then proceeds to process all this information, drawing from the all-embracing image imparted by the eye. Our faculty of hearing functions in the very opposite manner: we hear but one sound at a time. We cannot grasp the entire idea at once: we can hear it only sentence by sentence, word by word, syllable by syllable. Each of these particulars is virtually meaningless on its own; we must re-create the idea or score in our minds, piecing it together bit by bit.

Rabbi Jacob Leiner said:” From a human perspective it seems as if seeing is a more precise form of knowledge that hearing. In fact, however, hearing has a greater power than seeing. Sight discloses the external aspects of things, but hearing reveals their inwardness.

The author Taylor Caldwell once wrote,” one of the most terrible aspects of the world today is this: no one listens to anyone. If you are bewildered or frightened or lost or bereaved or alone, no one really listens. Nobody has the time to listen to anyone. Even those who love you the most – your parents, your children have no time.”

The art of listening is crucial to relationships because it means to actually be attentive to another, to be present to the needs of another person.
Perhaps this is why the Shema is such an important prayer. It calls out to us, almost as if it is shouting to us, and demands that we listen and take notice of others. One of the greatest gifts we can give someone is to listen to them. Listening can be intensely therapeutic. The very act of listening is a form of respect.

We know when God asked Moses to become the leader of the Israelites, 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.” 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. An effective leader is one who knows how to listen.

In Stephen Covey’s book,” The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”, habit number six is:” Seek first to understand, then to be understood. Covey says: “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” If we fall into the all-too-common trap of tuning out while we formulate our own response, we will never fully be with the person sitting in front of us and we will have little chance of fully understanding them and helping them feel heard and valued. We will not have the information we need to effectively lead those in our teams and help them maximize their potential.

We are all guilty of not listening at one point or another in our lives. We tune out others while we are watching the TV or trying to concentrate on something we are reading. Nowadays, we try hard to multitask between e mails and texting, but inevitably that means were not always listening to someone who is trying to talk with us.

Real listening means the ability to focus entirely on others and their issues, with an open heart and mind. Listening lies at the very heart of relationships. It means that we are open to another person, that we respect him or her, that their perceptions and feelings matter to us. We give them permission to be honest, even if this means making ourselves vulnerable in so doing. It does not necessarily mean agreeing with them, but it does mean caring. It gives us the opportunity to hear things from their vantage point, to understand how they see life. Yet, how often do we neglect to listen. How often do respond to our children, our spouses or those important to us with auto responses, without ever really hearing.

In summary, the second paragraph of the Shema begins by emphasizing the importance of these two concepts: hearing and listening. The word Shema is demonstrative of our partnership with God. It functions to illustrate that in a relationship, even with God, we not only hear God, but we wish to be heard as well.

Crowds are moved by great speakers, but lives are changed by great listeners. Stop, focus, and really listen. You might be surprised of a whole new awareness that opens up before you.