To listen to an audio recording of this sermon (made after the holiday), please click here.

You probably remember the story about the elderly Jewish woman listening to a lecture by a famous astronomer. The lecture was about the sun.

At one point the astronomer said, “In around six to seven billion years the Sun will exhaust all its hydrogen fuel and begin the process of stellar death. When that happens, the Sun will grow so large it will engulf planet Earth.”

Distressed, the woman interrupted the lecture, yelling out, “Wait, when will this happen?”

The astronomer replied: “Six to seven billion years from now.”

To which the woman replied, “Whew! I thought you said million.”

The central mitzvah of Rosh Hashanah is not dipping apples and honey. It isn’t eating honey cake. It isn’t getting together with your crazy relatives. Those things are all lovely and important. But they’re not what Rosh Hashanah is fundamentally about. No, at its heart, Rosh Hashanah is about listening–about remembering what it means to listen, and about listening closely to the sound of the shofar.

בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִי בְּאֶחָד לַחֹדֶשׁ יִהְיֶה לָכֶם שַׁבָּתוֹן זִכְרוֹן תְּרוּעָה מִקְרָא־קֹדֶשׁ

says the Torah.

“In the seventh month, on the first of the month, you will observe a day of rest, a holy day of commemorating the teruah.”

That’s why we’re here: to hear. To listen to the shofar.

The blessing we say when we blow the shofar blesses God for commanding us not to blow the shofar, but לשמוע קול שופר, to listen to its voice. To listen to the voice of the shofar. Listening is is the main mitzvah of the day. Listening is what Rosh Hashanah is all about.

So I’d like to talk with you about three ways of listening.

The first way of listening I want to talk about is remembering what it means to listen.

A number of years ago my wife and I took a vacation to Italy. We went to Rome and Florence and Venice, and we had a wonderful time. But there was a moment on the trip when I was disturbed. We were walking over a bridge in Venice, and we saw a couple riding in a gondola below. And as we looked at this gondola going under the bridge, I realized that the man was recording the whole thing on video. Now, in and of itself, that didn’t bother me–though I do wonder whether they’ve looked at that video since. What bothered me was that the man was experiencing the entire gondola ride, and presumably their entire trip, through the viewfinder on the camera. He wasn’t experiencing Venice. He was experiencing his camera’s experience of Venice. He was missing the whole thing.

I’m sure we’ve all seen, or probably engaged in, this kind of behavior. We’ve been so preoccupied with the pictures that we forget to actually live in the moment. We are so focused on preserving the memory, that we don’t make the memory in our own minds. We are so focused on having an experience, that we detach ourselves from the experience we’re having.

We live in an age of images. We spend our time in front of screens–televisions, computers, blackberries, iphones, video games. For so many of us, our lives take place through our eyes. The image is the dominant sensory experience of our time. I saw an amazing statistic recently: More images are uploaded on Facebook in a month than have been generated by humanity in all of previous history. We live in an age of images.

Simply put, we spend far more time looking than we do listening. We are so focused on the visual that we forget about the aural. We are so preoccupied with our eyes that we forget about our ears. We are so worried about what things will look like that we forget about what things actually are.

The shofar comes to call us back. Shema Yisrael — Listen O Israel! The word Shema, listen, is the watchword of the Torah. It is the sensory focus of our people. When we say the Shema, we cover our eyes. We turn away from the shiny objects of our lives, those objects which have such seductive power, and we use our ears. We open our minds. We open our hearts. We listen.

So the first way of listening is simply remembering what it means to stop and listen. To turn off the visual. To turn off the images. And simply to listen.

This, of course, begs the question: What do we listen to? And that brings me to the second way of listening: listening to the world, and listening to each other.

I hear the drizzle of the rain
Like a memory it falls
Soft and warm continuing
Tapping on my roof and walls

You might remember the Paul Simon song. When was the last time you stopped to listen to the drizzle of the rain? When was the last time you paused to listen to the world? What did it sound like? What did you hear?

Every day, all year long, we are bombarded by images. We are constantly tuning out noise. And we spend so much time and energy tuning out that often we forget what it feels like to tune in.
To recover the practice of listening, we need to begin by stopping. We have to create the space to listen. To listen, to truly listen, requires being open. To truly listen means allowing ourselves to float on the sounds we hear–not responding, not judging, not evaluating, just listening. To listen, to truly listen, is to be ready to be moved, to allow ourselves to be transformed–by the world, and by each other.

Listening isn’t just something we do with our ears. Listening is something we do with our hearts. The Book of Kings recounts that, when he ascended the throne, the young King Solomon was visited by God in a dream. “Ask for anything,” God said, “and I will grant it to you.” Solomon could have asked for riches. He could have asked for power. He could have asked for military might. But Solomon asked for something far more precious, and more difficult to achieve: a lev shomea, a listening heart.

The midrash recalls Solomon as a man of exceptional wisdom. And his wisdom was rooted in his listening heart. Solomon listened to the world, and he listened to people. He heard their pain and suffering. He heard their hopes and dreams. In listening to them, in making them feel recognized and acknowledged, he built trust. And when he had trust, he could lead a nation to build a sacred center, the Temple in Jerusalem, a home for God on earth.

The shofar calls us lishmoa, to listen to the world. Lishmoa, to listen to the drizzle of the rain. Lishmoa, to listen to each other. The shofar calls us lishmoa, to listen to the cries of our brothers and sisters. It calls us to stop and listen. Because only if we listen can we build a better world.

And this brings us to the third and final way of listening I want to talk with you about: listening to ourselves.

At the moment of revelation at Sinai, the Torah tells us

משה ידבר והאלהים יעננו בקול

“Moses spoke, and God answered in a voice.” The Talmud asks, what was the voice that God used to speak to Moses? The answer:

בקולו של משה

in Moses’s own voice.

To hear our own voice, to really listen to ourselves, is to be open to listening to the voice of God. That is not to say that hearing God’s voice is an act of narcissism. It is to say that listening to our own voice, clearly and simply, is no small feat. To really make the space to hear ourselves, to hear the inner voice within us, requires care and attention and effort. It is hard work.

The poet Mary Oliver puts it well in a poem aptly called, Praying:

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

Just pay attention, says Mary Oliver. Tefillah, prayer, is a silence in which another voice may speak–the still small voice within us. And when we listen to that voice, we can hear the voice of God.

ובשופר גדול יתקע וקול דממה דקה ישמע

The great shofar is sounded, and a still small voice is heard. The sound of the shofar clears a path for us to hear. It creates a silent space in which we can listen clearly, a silence in which another voice may speak.

I don’t need to tell you that our world desperately needs more listening. Our country needs more listening. Israel needs more listening. Our communities and families need more listening. We need moments without images. We need times to slow down. We need clear spaces to listen to each other and listen to ourselves. We need to make room for another voice to speak.

This is the call of the shofar: A call lishmoa. A call to listen–to the world, to one another, to ourselves.  The midrash tells us that every day, a voice goes forth from Sinai. When we listen, when we truly listen, we can hear the voice of God.

May this year be a year of slowing down, a year of finding our voices, a year of listening.

Shana tova.