One of the keywords of the Torah portion of Va’etchanan is shema, listen. Famously, of course, this is the parasha of the prayer known as the Shema: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deut. 6:4). But shema appears many other times in the parasha as well:

“Now, Israel, hear the decrees and laws I am about to teach you.” (4:1)

“Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” (4:6)

“Then the LORD spoke to you out of the fire. You heard the sound of words but saw no form; there was only a voice.” (4:12)

And, in its most concentrated presentation: “When you heard the voice out of the darkness, while the mountain was ablaze with fire, all the leaders of your tribes and your elders came to me. 24 And you said, “The LORD our God has shown us his glory and his majesty, and we have heard his voice from the fire. Today we have seen that a person can live even if God speaks with them. 25 But now, why should we die? This great fire will consume us, and we will die if we hear the voice of the LORD our God any longer. 26 For what mortal has ever heard the voice of the living God speaking out of fire, as we have, and survived? 27 Go near and listen to all that the LORD our God says. Then tell us whatever the LORD our God tells you. We will listen and obey.” (5:23-27)

This emphasis on hearing is counterpoised with the strong emphasis against idolatry of not only this parasha, but of Deuteronomy in general–idolatry, which is most acutely manifested in the visual sense: “You saw no form of any kind the day the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, 16 so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman, 17 or like any animal on earth or any bird that flies in the air, 18 or like any creature that moves along the ground or any fish in the waters below. 19 And when you look up to the sky and see the sun, the moon and the stars—all the heavenly array—do not be enticed into bowing down to them and worshiping things the LORD your God has apportioned to all the nations under heaven.” (4:15-19)

All of which prompts us to reflect on listening, and what makes it distinct from sight. To be sure, listening can be just as susceptible to idolatry as sight: Words can themselves become static forms, taking on the fixity and seeming permanence of a visual idol. Thus Rashi’s famous statement on the last line of the Torah: “God said, ‘Yishar kochacha,’ well done, for breaking the tablets.'” (Rashi Deut. 34:12) Moses demonstrated that even the words of the Ten Commandments themselves must be living, not set in stone. The powers of speech and listening retain an elasticity, a dynamism and power of change, that sight, with its feeling of greater permanence, lacks.

This informs the commandment to parents at the Passover seder: “In the future, when your son asks you, “What is the meaning of the stipulations, decrees and laws the LORD our God has commanded you?” 21 tell him: “We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, but the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. 22 Before our eyes the LORD sent signs and wonders—great and terrible—on Egypt and Pharaoh and his whole household. 23 But he brought us out from there to bring us in and give us the land he promised on oath to our ancestors.” (Deut. 6:20-23) Here the parent is to engage the child’s sense of hearing, while appealing to the power of the sense of sight. That is, the parent evokes in the child a sense of visual memory–a powerful, striking memory. But ultimately the parent does not present the child with a picture, but rather with words. It is up to the child to interpret and re-member the memory in his or her own uniqueness.

Maggid, the central story-telling section of the Seder, is preceded by Yachatz, the breaking of the middle matzah. Ouankin observes: “That breaking is an invitation to the reader to enter the text to say his own word there. That is why the following part is called Maggid, ‘he tells,’ rather than simply ‘the account.’ The reader of the Haggadah is not merely the keeper of the text, but also its co-author. The reader is not the dazzled or bored spectator of a story made elsewhere, with which he or she has only a distant relationship. The text speaks to us, about us, and about our own history.”

Education begins with education. “The embarrassed cannot learn, and the haughty cannot teach,” said Hillel. To listen requires humility, a willingness to be broken, to forgo the false security of permanence and idolatry. Listening is not simply the copying of one person’s meaning into the heart of another–that is an impossible task. Rather, the challenge and the enchantment of human communication is precisely that we must put together the meaning of the words of another, even of God, in good faith and true listening. Shema Yisrael.

Shabbat shalom.

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