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Listening More Than We Speak

Parashat Va’etchanan (Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11)

by Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater

August 10, 2011 | 10:32 am

Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater is the spiritual leader of the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center (pjtc.net), a congregation affiliated with the Conservative movement.

Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater is the spiritual leader of the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center (pjtc.net), a congregation affiliated with the Conservative movement.

Having just come off Tisha B’Av, not only do we focus on the parasha, Va’etchanan, but this is also Shabbat Nachamu, the healing Shabbat of Comfort, so named because we read the words of Isaiah, “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God” (Isaiah 40:1).

Having spent the three weeks leading up to Tisha B’Av thinking about mourning and sadness, focusing on our vulnerability and the painful consequences of wrongful behavior, all the while dealing with truly evil people who afflict us and random acts of nature that plague us, we now emerge into the light of comfort, the blessing of renewal and the revelation of hope. And Parashat Va’etchanan offers us that: Before we even get to the Ten Commandments and the Shema (both in this parasha), we learn that God is calling us to listen; listen to the bigger picture in life. “Listen Israel, listen to the laws and disciplines that I am instructing you to observe. ...” (Deuteronomy 4:1).

This parasha is reminding us that we are called to pay attention not just to the immediate moment in which we are living — although as a meditation teacher, that is often what I instruct students to do — but rather to see that each moment is connected to a larger vision, a larger canvas of existence. “Those who have d’vekut [clinging attachment to God], you are alive today” (Deuteronomy 4:4); these are words we say every week in synagogue before we listen, or hear, the Torah. V’atem ha’d’vekim ba’adonai eloheichem, hayyim kulchem hayom. I understand having “d’vekut,” this cleaving attachment to God, as the central component to keeping us focused on the bigger picture of life.

So, what is the meaning behind listening? Why do we say “Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheichem, Adonai Echad” (Deuteronomy 6:4)? There is a midrash that says God wants us to listen more than we talk, for that is why we have two ears and only one mouth. The larger canvas of life is about hearing the calls of God in our life, dedicating ourselves not solely to the betterment of our individual dots on the canvas, but also to the betterment of our neighbors — both far and near — through generosity, tzedakah and kindness. When we listen, we are reaching out to the other. When we listen, we can learn something new, perhaps break down a barrier, a stereotype, a preconceived notion, thereby healing the world through embracing others. Listening takes patience, something we are losing in our high-tech, fast-paced, nonstop world in which we find ourselves. Or at least those of us in the rich, developed world.

Pirke Avot teaches us, “Who is wise? Those who learn from all people.” The polarization we are facing in our world, and not just in the political sphere, is due in part to the fact that we are not listening as much as we yell and scream and demand that our opinion, our facts, our truths be heard and be the only valid ones allowed. It happens on all sides, and this week’s parasha is reminding us that it is unsustainable.

Moses is educating the generation about to enter the land, those who did not witness the revelation at Sinai, that “the day you stood before Adonai your God at Horeb, when Adonai said to me, ‘Gather the people to Me that I may let them hear My words, in order that they may learn to have awe and reverence for My presence

as long as you live and to teach your children’ ” (Deuteronomy 4:10). Our relationship to God is a lifelong endeavor and is mostly about listening. Teaching our children to listen is such a valuable lesson, greater than teaching them to talk. In our world, where anyone and everyone is clamoring to be heard, especially with Twitter, Facebook and other social media, the Torah is reminding us to listen.

Sit with a friend, ask how he or she is, and truly be ready to sit and listen to the answer. Visit a family member and listen to stories from the previous generation. Sit in prayer or meditation and listen for the whispers of God.

The Shema teaches us that prayer is much more about listening: for ourselves, our hearts, our souls, our God. Through listening we stay more deeply connected to the bigger vision of life, the canvas that reminds us of something vaster in depth and meaning than just ourselves. I pray in order to better see and engage with that vision, with that canvas.

The other handy reminder that comes with Shabbat Nachamu is that we are now exactly seven weeks away from Rosh Hashanah. May the healing we find, and the listening we do this Shabbat, be the opening notes toward a more harmonious and redemptive High Holy Days experience. Shabbat shalom!

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