As the Torah Turns
Rabbi Lader’s Weekly D’var Torah
Ekev – Deut. 7:12-11:25 (Jul.29/30)
This week we turn to Ekev – Deut. 7:12-11:25. “If only you would listen to these laws …” (Deut. 7:12). These words with which our parsha begins contain a verb that is a fundamental motif of the book of Deuteronomy. The verb is sh-m-a. It occurred in last week’s parsha in the most famous line of the whole of Judaism, Shema Yisrael. It occurs later in this week’s parsha 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 Deuteronomy as a whole. In his commentary on this week’s portion, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (z”l) wrote: “Time and again in the last month of his life Moses told the people, Shema: listen, heed, pay attention. Hear what I am saying. Hear what God is saying. Listen to what he wants from us. If you would only listen … Judaism is a religion of listening. This is one of its most original contributions to civilization. The twin foundations on which Western culture was built were ancient Greece and ancient Israel. They could not have been more different. Greece was a profoundly visual culture. Its greatest achievements had to do with the eye, with seeing. It produced some of the greatest art, sculpture and architecture the world has ever seen. Its most characteristic group events – theatrical performances and the Olympic games – were spectacles: performances that were watched. Plato thought of knowledge as a kind of depth vision, seeing beneath the surface to the true form of things. This idea – that knowing is seeing – remains the dominant metaphor in the West even today. We speak of insight, foresight and hindsight. We offer an observation. We adopt a perspective. We illustrate. We illuminate. We shed light on an issue. When we understand something, we say, “I see.” Judaism offered a radical alternative. It is faith in a God we cannot see, a God who cannot be represented visually. The very act of making a graven image – a visual symbol – is a form of idolatry. As Moses reminded the people in last week’s Torah portion, when the Israelites had a direct encounter with God at Mount Sinai, “You heard the sound of words, but saw no image; there was only a voice.” (Deut. 4:12). God communicates in sounds, not sights. He speaks. He commands. He calls. That is why the supreme religious act is Shema. When God speaks, we listen. When He commands, we try to obey… This may seem like a small difference, but it is in fact a huge one. For the Greeks, the ideal form of knowledge involved detachment. There is the one who sees, the subject, and there is that which is seen, the object, and they belong to two different realms… Speaking and listening are not forms of detachment. They are forms of engagement. They create a relationship. The Hebrew word for knowledge, da’at, implies involvement, closeness, intimacy. “And Adam knew Eve his wife and she conceived and gave birth” (Gen. 4:1). That is knowing in the Hebrew sense, not the Greek. We can enter into a relationship with God, even though He is infinite and we are finite, because we are linked by words. In revelation, God speaks to us. In prayer, we speak to God. If you want to understand any relationship, between husband and wife, or parent and child, or employer and employee, pay close attention to how they speak and listen to one another. Ignore everything else… 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. In Judaism we believe that our relationship with God is an ongoing tutorial in our relationships with other people. How can we expect God to listen to us if we fail to listen to our spouse, our children, or those affected by our work? And how can we expect to encounter God if we have not learned to listen. On Mount Horeb, God taught Elijah that He was not in the whirlwind, the earthquake or the fire but in the kol demamah dakah, the “still, small voice” It is that voice you can only hear if you are listening. Crowds are moved by great speakers, but lives are changed by great listeners…”
From Previous Weeks
What does it mean to be wise? Is it insight? Good judgement? Common sense? An orderly and balanced sense?
In essence, the Torah is saying that there is inherent value to journeys, to life experiences.
We walk in the footsteps of the Rabbis who understood the damage done by extremism.
What makes the unseen seen? What makes the unknown known?