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August 29, 2015 / 14 Elul, 5775
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First, You Must Listen

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

“If only you would listen to these laws …” (Deut. 7: 12). These words with which our parshah begins contain a form of a verb that is a fundamental motif of the book of Devarim. The verb is sh-m-a. It occurred in last week’s parshah in the most famous line of the whole of Judaism, Shema Yisrael. It occurs later in this week’s parshah in the second paragraph of the Shema, “It shall be if you surely listen [shamoa tishme’u] … (Deut. 11: 13). It appears no less than 92 times in Devarim as a whole.

We often miss the significance of this word because of what I call the fallacy of translatability: the assumption that one language is fully translatable into another. We hear a word translated from one language to another and assume that it means the same in both. But often it doesn’t. Languages are only partially translatable into one another. The key terms of one civilization are often not fully reproducible in another. The Greek word megalopsychos, for example, Aristotle’s “great-souled man” who is great and knows he is, and carries himself with aristocratic pride, is untranslatable into a moral system like Judaism in which humility is a virtue. The English word “tact” has no precise equivalent in Hebrew. And so on.

This is particularly so in the case of the Hebrew verb sh-m-a. Listen, for example, to the way the opening words of this week’s parshah have been translated into English:

If you hearken to these precepts…

If you completely obey these laws…

If you pay attention to these laws…

If you heed these ordinances…

Because ye hear these judgments…

There is no single English word that means to hear, to listen, to heed, to pay attention to, and to obey. Sh-m-a also means “to understand,” as in the story of the tower of Babel, when God says, Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand [yishme’u] each other” (Gen. 11: 7).

As I have argued elsewhere, one of the most striking facts about the Torah is that, although it contains 613 commands, it does not contain a word that means “to obey.” When such a word was needed in modern Hebrew, the verb le-tzayet was borrowed from Aramaic. The verb used by the Torah in place of “to obey” is sh-m-a. This is of the highest possible significance. It means that blind obedience is not a virtue in Judaism. God wants us to understand the laws He has commanded us. He wants us to reflect on why this law, not that. He wants us to listen, to reflect, to seek to understand, to internalize and to respond. He wants us to become a listening people.

Ancient Greece was a visual culture, a culture of art, architecture, theatre and spectacle. For the Greeks generally, and Plato specifically, knowing was a form of seeing. Judaism, as Freud pointed out in Moses and Monotheism, is a non-visual culture. We worship a God who cannot be seen; and making sacred images, icons, is absolutely forbidden. In Judaism we do not see God; we hear God. Knowing is a form of listening. Ironically, Freud himself, deeply ambivalent though he was about Judaism, in psycho-analysis invented the listening cure: listening as therapy.

It follows that in Judaism listening is a deeply spiritual act. To listen to God is to be open to God. That is what Moses is saying throughout Devarim: “If only you would listen.” So it is with leadership – indeed with all forms of interpersonal relationship. Often the greatest gift we can give someone is to listen to them.

About the Author: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, is the author of many books of Jewish thought, most recently “The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning.”


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