If a Jew knows one prayer, it is the Sh’ma. It is often translated: “Listen Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is One.” And, it is not a prayer. It is found in Deuteronomy as one of many “Sh’ma Yisrael” statements such as “Listen, Israel, the laws and rules that I proclaim to you this day…” (5:1). It was the rabbis who created the prayer service that made this particular “Sh’ma Yisrael” into what we consider a prayer.
Throughout the Torah, there is a focus on speaking and listening; how often do we read the phrase “Adonai spoke to Moses…”? Per Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (z”l), former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain on Parashat Eikev: “The God encountered by Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, by Moses in the burning bush, and by the Israelites as they stood at the foot of Mount Sinai, came not as an appearance, a visible presence, but as a voice — commanding, promising, challenging, summoning.”
In Deuteronomy, the dynamic of speaking and listening is heightened. This is the last opportunity for Moses to address the Israelites. This is the last opportunity for God to speak to Moses — and to the Israelites through Moses. This is when the Israelites’ story transforms from them being nomads to their settling in the Promised Land; to having Moses as their leader; to being passed to his successor Joshua; from being together as one, to being divided into tribal lands. This is a paradigm shift that will affect every aspect of their lives, so they need to listen up.
We, too, know the experience of saying something over and over again and not being heard. Or perhaps we are heard but ignored. Or maybe we are heard and mocked. None of those scenarios is effective for the speaker or the listener.
I was trained in the Prepare/Enrich marital counseling program. Per its website: “Our mission is to equip marriage champions, couples, and families with evidence-based skills and insights to foster healthy relationships.” No matter the couples’ “Strength” areas and “Growth” areas, one of the foci for all couples is communication.
There is an activity in which each member of the couple writes down his/her wishes for their relationship. Then one partner is to share a wish using assertive language which is clear and non-aggressive, and the other partner is to actively listen and share back what was said. Then they switch. It is interesting how difficult this exercise can be. The listener often adds commentary or changes the words significantly, at which point I turn to the speaker and ask, “Is that what you said?”
For us to move forward — whether into the Promised Land, into the next phase of our relationships, into hearing our own inner voice, into our covenant with God — we need to learn to be good, active listeners. Sh’ma Yisrael — Listen Up! PJC
Rabbi Barbara AB Symons is the rabbi of Temple David. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.