LISTENING, AT ALL COSTS

alternate textParashah “Eikev” (Deut 7:12 – 11:25) starts with the two Hebrew words, “Vehayah Eikev” (And it shall be because…) but the important part of the verse, and of the entire Parashah, is what follows: “And it shall be, because … you hear (“shema”) these right-rulings, and shall guard and do them, that Yahweh your Elohim shall guard with you the covenant and the loving-commitment which He swore to your fathers.” It is all about this well-known, but not too well understood word, “shema”. “Hear (“shema”) o Israel, Yahweh (is) our Elohim, Yahweh is one!” – these are the words that we normally associate with the concept of “The Shema” – the words of Deut 6:4, which was part of last week’s Parashah. “Shema” is central to the entire message of the book of Devarim (or Deuteronomy). It appears no less than 92 times in this book.

Have you ever attended a conference or a lecture or a training session or a political speech or a sermon where, in the end, you felt frustrated and had to admit to yourself: “The speaking was excellent but the listening was non-existent.” Not only the listening on the part of the audience, but especially the listening on the part of the speaker. No true communication can take place without listening. How can training and learning happen when there is no listening? How can people be motivated to do more than just speaking in their interaction with others, if they are spoken to solidly for two or three hours? If I want to speak to people on their level, bearing in mind their lives, their struggles, their heartaches and their joys, I need to listen to them first. I need to take time to listen – even before I am put in a position of having to speak to them.

Why is there such a huge emphasis on the aspect of listening in the Torah? Of course, there are more than one reason for this. But one of the important reasons is that Yahweh cannot be seen, He can only be heard. That is why the people of Israel were constantly warned against making or worshipping any visual representation of the Almighty. Deut 4:12 is one of the verses that may be seen as the background of the commandment that no one was allowed to make a carved image or likeness of Yahweh, or something that was associated with Him: “Yahweh spoke to you out of the midst of the fire. You heard a voice of words, but saw no form, you only heard a voice.”

Isn’t it interesting that most of our everyday words for understanding revolves around the metaphor of seeing? We speak of having insight in a matter (Afr “insig”), or state that we have observed (Afr “waargeneem”) something in order to understand better. In a situation of discussion, people would often ask, “What is your view on the matter?” (Afr “siening”). When we explain to others how we understand things, we would say, “It appears that …” (Afr. “Dit lyk vir my …”). And when others explain something to us, we would respond by saying, “I see…”. But isn’t it true that understanding is more about hearing than seeing? Is it not sometimes necessary for us to put aside our obsession with seeing (the proof), and rather focus on proper hearing in order to be transformed by the message conveyed to us? Is this not the lesson that Thomas had to learn when Y’shua said to him “because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen but still believed” (John 20:29).

I don’t agree with everything written in the Talmud, but it has been pointed out by some of the old rabbis that the writings of the Babylonian Talmud deliberately (and correctly) steered away from this obsession of linking the act of understanding with the ability to SEE. In the Babylonian Talmud the act of understanding, in the majority of cases, is linked with the ability to HEAR. In the Babylonian Talmud, when proof for something is put on the table, it is declared: “Come and hear!” When a certain principle is applied to another situation, it is said: “Hear from this!” When someone disagrees with an argument, it would be said of that person: “He could not hear it.” When a conclusion is drawn from a certain viewpoint, it is often written in the Babylonian Talmud: “From this it can be heard.” It is time for us to take seriously the fact that Yahweh chose for his people to be corrected, directed and protected by the principle of “shema” – the ability to listen.

In Hebrew their is no proper word for obedience. This in itself is a stunning fact, if you bear in mind that Yahweh gave his people 613 commandments. “Shema” is a difficult word to translate. It can mean to hear, to listen, to pay attention, to understand, to adopt and to respond. It does not simply mean “to obey.” Did Yahweh expect blind obedience? No, He wanted his people to master the art of listening, not just with their ears but also with their hearts and their minds. Simple obedience is something one can get from a robot. But Yahweh chose not to make robots. He chose to make man in his image. Karl Barth described Yahweh in German as “der ganz Andere” – the One who is completely different; but also the One who created “otherness”. Life is not only about the self. It is about others too. This is how we were created. Only when we become involved with others, it becomes possible to live a fulfilled life. Not before that and not without that. The bridge between ourselves and others is conversation. Speaking and listening. When we speak we tell others who we are. This is important but it is not yet revelation – at least not from our own perspective. We knew who we were, before we began to speak. But when we listen, we allow others to tell us who they are. And that is revelation! It is something we had not known before. Just as it is revelation when we listen to Yahweh, telling us who He is and teaching us things that we had not known before.

We are a generation hungry for revelation (as was the case with most of the generations before us). Still, there are not many of us who have fully discovered the hidden beauty of taking time to listen, allowing the splendour of Yahweh’s words, and the revelation accompanying those words, to enrich and fill our lives. No doubt, the art of listening should begin with us listening to other people. If we can’t listen to other people, then we certainly can’t listen to Yahweh. Remember, listening is about benefiting from the fact of our “otherness” – the fact that we are different. If we cannot handle the relatively small scale “otherness” of those around us, we shall certainly not cope with the large scale “otherness” between Yahweh and ourselves. Let us not rob ourselves of the many opportunities each day of listening to those around us. Let us not spoil a single opportunity for listening by giving in to the urge of switching from listening to speaking, too quickly, too eagerly and too frequently. Let us put more energy into our effort to get rid of the bad habit of continuously bypassing and neglecting our ears, in favour of our mouths. There is a world of pleasure and blessing to be discovered by those who come to understand the true meaning of “shema”.

With Mosheh using the word “shema” 92 times in the book of Devarim, the people of Israel could almost be excused if they would respond, by saying to him: “Ok, that’s enough now. We have heard you. Stop repeating yourself.” But Mosheh did not stop. He knew there was a huge difference between hearing with the ears and hearing with the heart, mind and soul. And so, towards the end of this week’s Parashah, in Deut 11:13, and further, he says, once again: “And it shall be that if you diligently obey (Heb “shema tishme’u”) My commands which I command you today, to love Yahweh your Elohim and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your being, then I shall give you the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the latter rain, and you shall gather in your grain, and your new wine, and your oil.” Two features are standing out. Firstly, he begins this last section of the Parashah with the same word he used right at the beginning of the Parashah: “Vehayah” – “And it shall be …” If Yahweh says “it shall be”, there is no room for doubt, whatsoever. The word for “it shall be” is even the root word of his own Name! This is his name; this is his Word – what follows, is worthwhile listening to! And secondly, the word “shema” is used in a “double the strength” construction to bring across the idea: Listen very carefully; listen with all your heart, listen at all costs! The Scriptures translated this with “obey diligently”. The Complete Jewish Bible translated it with “listen carefully”. In the Hebrew it says “shema tishme’u” – two “shema’s” next to each other. Not: listen, speak, listen. But rather: listen, listen!

It takes courage to listen. It is an act of humility. It is making oneself vulnerable. People who can make themselves vulnerable are emotionally mature people. Because when we do so, it allows another person, someone who thinks differently, to enter into the world that we have built for ourselves. It is the opposite of narcissism: the belief that I am the centre of the universe. By getting into the habit of listening it will help us to get rid of the narrow-minded worldview in which there is only black and white and within which one is all too eager to simply declare: “I am right and you are wrong.” Listening can be painful but it is the greatest gift that we can give to another human being. Because, when I sense that I am heard, I know that someone else is taking me seriously. And this allows for comfort and healing and growth to take place. It also removes the barrier for blessings to be poured out. If you can learn to listen, at all costs, Yahweh declared through his servant Mosheh, then I shall give you the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the latter rain, and you shall gather in your grain, and your new wine, and your oil!