The Parsha in a Nutshell
This summary is adapted from this week’s main Covenant & Conversation essay by Rabbi Sacks, available to read in full via the left sidebar (or below, if you are viewing this on your phone)
The Hebrew word shema is cannot directly translate into English, because it means so many different things: to hear, to listen, to pay attention, to understand, to internalise, to respond, to obey. This is one of the keywords of the book of Devarim, included 92 times – more than in any other book of the Torah. Why? Because Judaism is a religion of listening. This is one of its most original contributions to civilisation. For other civilisations believed that wisdom was visual. 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.”
Judaism offers a radical alternative. We have 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. 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.
This may seem like a small difference, but it is in fact a huge one. Just look at ancient Greece compared to ancient Israel. For the Greeks, the ideal form of knowledge involved detachment. There is the one who sees – the subject – and there is that which is seen – the object – and they belong to two different realms. A person who looks at a painting, or a sculpture, or a play in a theatre, or the Olympic Games, is not a part of the art, or the drama, or the athletic competition. They are the spectator, not an active participant.
In contrast, speaking and listening are forms of engagement. They create a relationship. We can enter into a relationship with God, even though He is infinite and we are finite, because we are linked by words. In revelation, God speaks to us. In prayer, we speak to God.
The Greeks taught us the forms of knowledge that come from observing and inferring, namely science and philosophy. But not everything can be understood by seeing and appearances alone. Jews and Judaism taught that we cannot see God, but we can hear Him and He hears us. It is through the word – speaking and listening – that we can have an intimate relationship with God as our parent, our partner, our sovereign, the One who loves us and whom we love.
Listening lies at the very heart of relationship. It is profoundly spiritual. It means that we are open to the other, that we respect them, 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. A good parent listens to their child. A good spouse listens to their partner. A good employer listens to their team. A good company listens to its customers and clients. A good leader listens to their followers. Listening does not mean agreeing, but it does mean caring. Listening is the climate in which love and respect grow.
And in Judaism, we believe that our relationship with God is an ongoing tutorial in our relationships with other people. For how can we expect God to listen to us if we fail to listen to our spouse, our children, or those affected by our work? And how can we expect to encounter God if we have not learned to listen. God taught Eliyahu that He was not in the whirlwind, the earthquake, or the fire, but in the kol demamah dakah, the “still, small voice that I define as a voice you can only hear if you are listening.Crowds are moved by great speakers, but lives are changed by great listeners. Whether between us and God or us and other people, listening is the prelude to love.
- What can words achieve that images cannot?
- How are words central to our relationship with God?
- How does listening lead to love?
A Lost Art
Rabbi Jay Goldmintz
A story is told of a man named Richard Bass who was a famous oilman, adventurer, and developer. He is best-known for his triumph of becoming the first person to have ever climbed the tallest mountain on each of the seven continents.
Bass was once on a flight where he struck up a conversation with the stranger in the seat beside him. Bass, a man known for being outgoing and talkative, proceeded to share his various adventures, reportedly for the next three hours of the trip! He told the stranger about his climbing of Mount McKinley, now officially called Denali, in Alaska. He shared stories of his dangerous experiences in the Himalayas, his ascent to Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa, his upcoming plan to reclimb Mount Everest, and a variety of other tales about his other treacherous but exciting climbs and journeys.
As the plane began its descent to its final destination, Bass suddenly stopped speaking. “I’ve just realised,” he exclaimed, “that I have been talking about myself the whole flight and I haven’t asked you anything about yourself, not even your name!”
“Oh, that’s okay,” responded his quiet companion, “I’m Neil Armstrong.” He was first person to ever walk on the moon.
More than ever, it would seem, listening of the kind that Rabbi Sacks encourages us to do, is a lost art. Think about how many times in a conversation people interrupt one another, intent not on responding to what the other person said, but rather jumping in to share their own reaction or experience. We are often better at speaking than at listening. And so, listening is a muscle that needs to be strengthened and trained. For without a good listener, one is only talking to oneself.
The new series of Covenant & Conversation: Family Editions features one new voice each week. We hope that this will further illuminate the ideas of Rabbi Sacks and encourage others to continue these conversations with the next generation, as we share the stories and ideas of Rabbi Sacks scholars.
Rabbi Dr. Jay Goldmintz is the author of the Koren Ani Tefillah Siddur. He teaches at Maayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in New Jersey.
A Closer Look
Rabbi Jay Goldmintz now shares some of the deeper ideas he learnt from Rabbi Sacks.
How could we put Rabbi Sacks’ message about prayer into real-life practice?
Does God answer our prayers? The answer is yes. But one thing is certain: God hears our prayer, and it is that hearing, that listening, that transforms our prayer from being us just talking to ourselves, to it being an actual conversation with God. Did you ever speak to someone on a cell phone and for some technical reason you could not hear their voice? Even so, you continue to speak, and to be heard. That too is a conversation.
For our part, listening can take place in prayer in two ways. After we pray, if we listen carefully, to the things that happen to us, to the thoughts that occur to us, we can sometimes hear God’s answer to our prayers. Alternatively, if we sit in silence for a little while before we pray, and listen to our own thoughts, it is sometimes possible to hear God calling out our name, inviting us into a conversation with Him. Either way, it is all about listening. As Rabbi Sacks wrote, “there is something profoundly spiritual about listening. Listening lies at the very heart of relationship.” That’s true of listening closely to a friend when they need you, listening to a parent or teacher who wants your attention, and it is no less true of God, who wants us to listen, even as we want Him to listen to us.
Can you share something else that you learnt from Rabbi Sacks himself?
In the introduction he kindly wrote to my commentary on the Siddur, Rabbi Sacks noted as he often did that “prayer matters. It changes the world because it changes us.” It changes us because it forces us to listen, to God, to our true selves, to what is expected of us and what we expect of ourselves. When I do that, I can then walk away from prayer as a different person, capable of living today in a very different way than I did the day before.
Question: Did the Children of Israel wear shoes in the desert?
This question has been adapted from Torah IQ by David Woolf, a collection of 1500 Torah riddles, available worldwide on Amazon. For the answer, please head to the Education Companion section (directly below, in grey).
Torah Trivia: this week’s answer
Whether you answered yes or no, you are correct! The passuk in Devarim 8:4 states that “The clothes upon you did not wear out, nor did your feet swell these forty years.” And there is another passuk in Ki Tavo, where God’s message is, “I led you through the wilderness for forty years; the clothes on your back did not wear out, nor did the sandals on your feet” (Devarim 29:4). From the second passuk, it appears that they wore sandals (and they did not need new ones for forty years!) However, Rashi comments on the first passuk that the people were walking barefoot, and the miracle was that despite all their travels their bare feet did not swell up from walking on the hot sand.
How do we clarify these two contradictory sentences? The Siftei Chachamim on Devarim 8:4 suggests that the Jews who left Egypt wore shoes, which did not wear out. But those who were born during the forty years did not wear – or need -shoes. This explains Rashi’s comment about bare feet. And so in conclusion, some wore shoes, and some never did.
Written as an accompaniment to Rabbi Sacks’ weekly Covenant & Conversation essay, the Family Edition is aimed at connecting teenagers with his ideas and thoughts on the parsha.
With thanks to the Schimmel Family for their generous sponsorship of Covenant & Conversation, dedicated in loving memory of Harry (Chaim) Schimmel.
“I have loved the Torah of R’ Chaim Schimmel ever since I first encountered it. It strives to be not just about truth on the surface but also its connection to a deeper truth beneath. Together with Anna, his remarkable wife of 60 years, they built a life dedicated to love of family, community, and Torah. An extraordinary couple who have moved me beyond measure by the example of their lives.” — Rabbi Sacks