Some thoughts about talking and listening from my Shabbat sermon on 7/28.
Among my favorite phrases in the prayer book is a tiny, two word phrase that can be found – at least in a traditional siddur – at the beginning of every amidah. The words are not part of an actual prayer – instead, they are an instruction, like in some prayer books where it will say ‘take three steps back,’ or ‘bend and bow.’ The phrase, in Hebrew, is תפילה בלחש – literally translated, a ‘whisper prayer.’
Over the years the way we understand that instruction has changed, in some ways dramatically. In our community we commonly say ‘we’ll continue silently’, or ‘we will continue with silent prayer,’ but a whisper is clearly not silent – it is quiet, but it is heard, it is audible. And the original intention of the instruction was not that we should be silent, but instead that even when we are praying privately we should be talking – whispering, yes – but still, talking out loud.
And the reason I love that phrase in the prayer book is because it so accurately reflects who we are as Jews. We are inveterate talkers. There is a young woman who recently began studying with me for conversion, and she comes from a Catholic background. As part of the conversion process I have asked her to attend synagogue with some regularity, and a few weeks ago she went for the very first time, never having been in a shul before. We met a few days later, and I asked her what she thought of the experience. She hesitated for a few moments before she said ‘it was amazing to me that everyone talked through the service!’ She was used to a Catholic mass, where the parishioners sit quietly, reflecting in silence until they are called upon to participate in the liturgy. But she walked into a shul! There were a couple of guys kibitzing in the back about the Orioles. There were people right in the middle of the congregation having a conversation about the weather. And the talking continued throughout, waxing and waning, some areas got a bit quieter while others got louder, but it never stopped. Even up on the bimah people were talking while the service was going on!
You would never see that in most Christian services, but that is what we Jews do. It sometimes seems like we never stop talking. There are many times when I’ve been at Levinsons and the doors open to the chapel for the family to walk out, and there is a loud hubbub of conversation, which takes a moment or two to die down – after all, people have to finish their sentences. Mind you this is after the funeral director has been out and asked people to be quiet. We talk during meetings – how many times have you been at a meeting for a Jewish organization and you realize there are multiple conversations going on all at the same time about a variety of topics? We talk while we eat. When we read the newspaper we spend half the time reading articles out loud to our spouses. We are story tellers and kibitzers, in fact we even are known for talking with our hands, in reality an organ that cannot speak.
There is something hamaisch about all of that talking. It is connective, there is a vibrancy to it, and a sense of community and closeness. But I do worry sometimes that with all of the talking that goes on, what can sometimes suffer is listening. After all, it is hard to listen when you are talking. And if Jews are very good at talking, I am not sure we are all that good at listening. So it is interesting to me that the Shema Yiisrael has become the best known prayer in our tradition. After all, think for a moment what it means – ‘Hear O Israel’ is our normal translation. But you could just as easily and accurately translate those words as ‘Listen Israel!’
Now who is the speaker of those words? It is Moses. The Book of Deuteronomy is essentially one long speech that Moses gives to the Israelites. The Hebrew word ‘shema’ is not actually all that common in the Torah. In the Book of Leviticus, for example, it appears only 6 times. But here in Deuteronomy, in the course of Moses’ long speech, he uses the word שמע 92 times. And in our Torah portion, in the verses that lead up to the Shema Israel verse itself, Moses uses the word שמע 9 times. We might say the more things change, the more they stay the same. You almost get the feeling that Moses is speaking, and while he is trying to get his message across the Israelites are kibitzing, and this one is talking to that one over there, and that one is talking to this one over here – just like shul! And finally, Moses has to pause in his remarks, and say ‘Hey, listen up! I am speaking over here! This is important! Shema Yisrael!’
The truth is the root for the Hebrew word shema – the ש מ ע – has multiple meanings in the Bible. Sometimes it is used in the plainest sense of the word – it just means to listen, to literally hear something that is being said. Other times it is clearly intended to imply not just listening but also comprehension and understanding. ‘I have heard’ means ‘I understand.’ And sometimes the Bible uses the word shema to mean obey, in the sense of I have heard you means I will do what you say. It is a nuanced word, and when we say Shema Israel in the course of our services the intention of the liturgy is for us to have a sense of all of those meanings. Again, our regular translation of the phrase ‘Shema Yisrael’ is Hear O Israel! But a better translation might be something like this: “Listen and concentrate. Give the word of God your focused attention and strive to understand what this is all about. Discern God’s will, and be prepared to abide by it.”
But of course for any of that to be successful the talking has to stop, at least for a few moments here and there. So we can hear each other, not just what we are saying, but what we mean. And so we can give ourselves the opportunity to hear, to sense, to understand, to comprehend, what God’s will might be, and from that to decide how we will respond. I don’t know of any other faith tradition that has a prayer like the Shema. Normally when we think of prayer we think of saying something to God, of reaching out and trying to communicate with the Divine. But the Shema is not directed at God in any way. It is instead directed at us, Am Yisrael, the Jewish people. It reminds us to study God’s word, to abide by God’s commandments, and to teach God’s traditions to our children. And it reminds us that in order to do all of that, and to do it well, we must sometimes stop the talking, and simply listen.