In Hebrew, just like in English, there are multiple words that are used to describe what you do with your ears. Lets identify a couple of them in English first – To listen and to hear. Now two commonly used in Hebrew – as Hebrew likes to do, one of the words comes from the noun for ‘ear.’ Which is what? אוזן. The three letter root that makes up that noun is then taken and plugged into a grammatical verb form – להאזין – and that means to listen. And the another Hebrew word for what you do with your ears? You all know it – Shema! Hear O Israel!
In both cases, with the English and also with the Hebrew, there is a different nuance to the words. So you may have been in conversation with someone – maybe someone close to you – maybe even your spouse – and you will say to them or they will say to you in the course of a conversation – you were listening, but you didn’t hear what I said. Which is another way of saying you were looking at me while I was speaking, you may have even heard the words, but you obviously have no idea what I really meant.
Listening is relatively easy – you just have to let the other person say what they want to say without interrupting them. (I did say relatively easy!) But hearing – truly hearing – what another person is saying is a different skill entirely. In fact sometimes truly hearing someone may actually require you to not listen to what they said – to disregard their words so that you can sense the meaning behind the words. It requires paying attention to the other person on a deeper level, reading not just the lines, as it were, but as we so often say ‘between the lines’ where the true meaning lies.
That is not a skill everyone has, and I would venture to guess that just about everyone in this room can identity one or two people in their lives whom they know will really ‘hear’ them when they are speaking. There is something validating about that person – just by speaking with them we know that our concerns are being taken seriously, our worries and fears are shared with someone who cares, our joys and successes are truly celebrated. When you find one of those people you hold on to them, and hopefully you grow your own ability to truly hear others through that relationship.
This week the world lost one of the greatest practitioners of the art of truly hearing that we have seen in a long time. Dr. Oliver Sacks died on Sunday after a battle with cancer at the age of 82. He was a renowned neurologist and author who made a career by writing about some of the more unusual case studies he encountered in the course of his career. He had a knack for explaining complicated and technical information to lay people, in a way that they could not only understand it, but also learn about their own lives and their own world. Dr. Sacks was an inveterate chronicler – as his illness progressed over the last months he continued to write almost daily, producing a series of moving essays about mortality, how he measured success in his life, and just a few weeks ago about how his battle against cancer had brought him closer to his traditional Jewish upbringing. He also was a true polymath, deeply knowledgeable about a variety of disciplines, and writing with equal facility about music or nature, or the human brain in books with memorable titles like The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, or his best known book Awakenings.
Oliver Sacks was blessed with many talents. He had a sharp and curious mind. He had an astonishing capacity for imagination, for seeing the world differently than most other people. But perhaps his greatest gift was his ability to communicate. And he knew intuitively what is hard for many of us to remember – communication does not mean that I’ve been able to get my point across to you. Instead, communication is a two way street – I am able to explain to you what is on my mind so that you understand it. But at the same time, I am able to hear you – to truly and fully understand what it is that you are saying, what it is that you need, and who you truly are. And Oliver Sacks was a master communicator, in the fullest sense of the word. When we talk about those who merely listen and those who truly hear, he truly heard.
That same sense of hearing is also at the heart of this last book of the Torah that we are now nearing the end of, the Book of Deuteronomy. The Hebrew root for ‘to hear’ – shin, mem, ayin – appears over and over again throughout the 32 chapters of the book, making the idea of ‘hearing’ a motif that runs throughout the Torah’s final book. Its most most famous appearance is in Deuteronomy 6 where we find the verse Shema Israel H’ Eloheinu H’ Echad. But we see the two words Shema Israel – Hear O Israel – repeated again and again, including in this week’s Torah portion – שמע ישראל היום הזה נהיית לעם לה׳ – Hear O Israel, today you have become the people of the Lord Your God.
That repeated use of the word ‘to hear’ calls us to a deeper engagement with Torah, with the words of the text we read week in and week out. We can all sit here and listen to the text being read. That simply requires us to be in the sanctuary, to be in the place where the words are being chanted. But to hear the words – to find true meaning in them – requires something more. Hearing words of Torah requires engagement. It requires study and effort, going beneath the surface, reading not just the lines, but between the lines. It requires not just the פשט – not just the plain meaning of the words – but also the דרש – the commentaries and conversations that the text has been generating now for more than 2000 years.
And perhaps more than anything else to be able to truly hear the words of Torah requires a fundamental belief – that the words of our sacred texts are still relevant – that they can still today bring meaning into our lives and a sense of God’s presence into our world. As the Sage Ben Bag Bag said long ago when talking about the words of Torah – turn them and turn them, for everything is in them. May we all remember that as we prepare to begin a new year –