“Reflections on the Shema: Listening to the Deepest Recesses of Our Souls”
Over the course of Yom Kippur, you may hear the words of the Shema sung in at least three different ways:
- There is the intense and forceful refrain you will hear tonight.
- The normal comforting melody that we sing in services all year round.
- The upbeat, happy melody we sing in many family services including tomorrow afternoon.
Each of these different recitations of the Shema will have a different effect upon you the listener. It may wake you up, it may put you at ease, and it may fill you with joy.
This is the day we pay attention beyond the words of our holiest Jewish prayer and beyond the melody as well, hearing the essence of what our ancestors were trying to communicate to us. And in doing so, we may begin to reflect on the truth of what it means to be alive, to be human, and to be in relationship with one another as fellow travelers on this planet earth.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, writes: “In Judaism, faith is a form of listening… That is what Moses says, time and again in Deuteronomy. Stop looking: listen. Stop speaking: listen. Create a silence in the soul. Still the clamor of instinct, desire, fear, anger. Strive to listen to the still, small voice beneath the noise.”
He continues, “Listening lies at the very heart of relationship. It means that we are open to the other, that we respect him or her, 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 employer listens to his or her workers. A good company listens to its customers or clients. A good leader listens to those he or she leads. Listening does not mean agreeing but it does mean caring. Listening is the climate in which love and respect grow.”
So, important is listening to Judaism itself, Sacks argues that it is one of our most “original contributions to civilisation.” (which he writes with an “s” because he’s British)
The act of listening is largely a forgotten skill today. So says, Julian Treasure, the chairman of the Sound Agency and a self-described sound expert. He says, “We are losing our listening. We spend roughly 60 percent of our communication time listening, but we’re not very good at it. We retain just 25 percent of what we hear.”
“This is not trivial,” he continues, “because listening is our access to understanding. Conscious listening always creates understanding… A world where we don’t listen to each other at all, is a very scary place indeed.”
Treasure argues that in order to change the status quo, we need to practice listening, and even more than that, we need to teach listening as a skill set in our schools.
He says we need to focus on a few specific techniques to become better listeners.
- Silence, just three minutes a day
- What he calls a “mixer,” noticing and identifying sounds occurring around you at any given time.
- And, lastly, savoring, taking time to enjoy and relish in sound itself.
Luckily, you can do all three of these here on Yom Kippur. (And, you thought you were here to fast and make amends.)
This is the day we turn of off our minds, and turn up our ears. It is through the ancient and modern melodies, the rhythm of our Cantor and choir, the chorus of congregation members, that our heart is fully open to take in the sounds of the world, the hear the deepest cry of our own souls, and the souls of those around us. Only then, after opening ourselves up that way, can we fully enter into the New Year.
So let, me tell you about the Hebrew prayer – Shema. Its root, Lishmoa, occurs, amazingly, 92 times in Deuteronomy alone. It is, as Rabbi Sachs argues, untranslatable, meaning at different times, “to hear, to listen, to pay attention, to understand, to internalize, to respond, to obey.”
The Torah recognizes that listening is essential in the building up the Jewish people. We need not only to listen to God, but to one another.
My favorite example is the Hebrew phrase – Na’aseh V’Nishamah. Translated by the rabbis to mean “we will do and then we will listen.” Rabbis often teach that this is about our people’s willingness to follow God’s commands, accepting Torah, even before we heard a word of what God had to say. Not so, I would argue. Na’aseh V’Nishmah means simply “we will do and we will listen.” Here the Torah is teaching us that listening and doing are separate actions. In order to do anything, we also have to take time to listen.
The word Shema is a stop sign right at the beginning of the prayer, reminding us that what will be coming is important; that it requires our full attention.
But, it is not enough to stop, we must stop with some purpose in mind. And, that comes in the second word Yisrael – Israel. Each of us here, whether through birth, conversion, marriage, or just being in partnership with the Jewish people, is connected to long line of ancestors that presumably takes us back to the first family itself, Abraham and Sarah.
Our spiritual DNA contains wisdom that has built up over time. It is one of the largest libraries of tradition that any people has ever been privy to. Think of its breadth and depth – from Torah to Talmud, Midrash, Philosophy, Codes, and on and on and on. We have stories of individual rabbis going back thousands of years. And, the beauty of Judaism is that we continue to talk to these people, as they were alive today.
The Shema itself is one of our oldest prayers. Embedded in the sixth chapter of Deuteronomy we place it in our doorways in the form of a mezuzah, imprint it between our eyes and in the muscle of our arms through Tefillin, phylacteries. Each time we say the Shema it is like unrolling an ancient manuscript and feeling the presence of an ancient relative, whose very presence shows us that we are not alone.
Next, we have Adonai, God, Yud-Hey-Vuv-Hey, Eloheinu, our God, in whatever form we choose to imagine. God teaches us that the world is not finite, but infinite; that we are connected to something that is much greater than any of us; that our lives have meaning; that human life is only one part of the equation.
The Jewish God is a God that is in conversation with us, a loving and majestic presence – Avinu Malchenu. On Yom Kippur we pray to a God that forgives our transgressions and encourages us to do better.
As the thirteen attributes instruct: “Adonai, Adonai, God, compassionate, gracious, endlessly patent, loving, and true; showing mercy to the thousandth generation; forgiving evil, defiance, and wrongdoing, granting pardon.”
And, finally, Adonai Echad, that God is one, and we too are one. Here among all of these people, it is not us and them, but us and us. Because if God is one than so are we. Whenever we get angry at someone, or are hurtful to another, we only hurt ourselves. We only hurt God.
The Shema is a prayer with an infinite set of melodies, each of our voices saying it differently, each of taking it in differently, and each of us saying it differently at different moments of our lives.
- The Shema is the gentle song of a parent singing to his or her baby before tucking them into bed.
- The Shema is the melody of a congregation, standing at attention, singing collectively and joyously, the words of their tradition.
- The Shema is the joyous song of a new Jew, climbing out of the warm waters of the mikveh, ritual bath, having worked so hard to get to this moment, and finally as a Jew reciting the words.
- The Shema is the feeble cry at the death bed, said as a final affirmation before God takes our soul.
- Shema is the prayer our Biblical ancestors sang before heading out to war.
- It is the prayer of Jews suffering persecution, crying out for help from God.
- Shema is the prayer for today, in our noisy, unfiltered world, a call of silence. It is all these things and more.
Yom Kippur is not a time of acting, it is a time of just listening. Over the course of the next 24 hours, I ask you to turn off the active part of your brain. Allow the melodies of the High Holidays to enter into you and transform you. Hear the sounds of your neighbors, hear the sounds buried deep inside yourself, pause, reflect, and just Shema. Nothing else just Shema.
An easy, and meaningful fast. May you be written and sealed in the book of life.