Torah | Put distractions aside, stop and listen

Va’etchanan

Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11

Isaiah 40:1-26

Ever feel like there are passages in the Torah that repeat themselves over and over again? Nowhere is that more true than in Deuteronomy, which literally means the “second teaching” or the “repetition of the Torah.”

Why does the Torah need to repeat the same words that we’ve already been told once before? While it’s possible that we didn’t listen the first time — something I’m sure no one has ever done during a teaching of the Torah — I think that the Torah is trying to make a point.

Of course, every word is important and is worth its own interpretation. Somehow, though, the more things are repeated, the greater the likelihood that not only will we internalize what we’ve heard, but we will also practice what’s been preached. Maybe that’s why Parashat Va’etchanan repeats numerous laws, including the Ten Commandments. More importantly, however, by repeating these laws and traditions time and time again, the Torah is emphasizing what’s at the heart of our tradition: shema — hearing, listening.

It’s hard to listen, to really be present. Often we’re preoccupied by other things: television, social media, the numerous distractions going on around us. Even when we’re in the middle of an important conversation, we spend more time preparing our response rather than really hearing what’s being said. Perhaps that’s the reason why the cornerstone of Jewish faith and practice, of how we are to live our lives, is rooted in the words of “Shema Yisrael” (Deuteronomy 6:4).

But why the emphasis on listening?

A teaching by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks pointed me to a beautiful teaching of Rabbi Yaakov Leiner, the leader of the Hassidic community in Radzyn, in Eastern Poland. Leiner taught, as quoted by Sacks, that “from a human perspective it often seems as if seeing is a more precise form of knowledge than hearing. In fact, however, hearing has a greater power than seeing. Sight discloses the external aspects of things, but hearing reveals their inwardness.”

One of the challenges that our ancestors faced during the Exodus from Egypt and while wandering in the wilderness for 40 years was their dependency on experiencing God through physical signs and wonders. “Seeing” God helped to affirm not only God’s existence, but it also helped deepen the faith of the ancient Israelites.

Yet the moment those visual effects stopped, it became more challenging for the Jewish people to remain believers in God. And so our Torah portion helps us reconnect with God not through visuals (the external), but instead through listening (to what’s on the inside).

Rabbi Sacks explains that “Shema Yisrael” does not mean “Hear, O Israel.” It means something like: “Listen. Concentrate. Give the word of God your most focused attention. Strive to understand. Engage all your faculties, intellectual and emotional … In Judaism faith is a form of listening: to the song creation sings to its Creator, and to the message history delivers to those who strive to understand it. 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. Then you will know that the universe is the work of the One beyond the furthest star yet closer to you than you are to yourself — and then you will love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul and all your might.”

In today’s world, it’s easy to focus on the other sensory experiences that surround us, becoming distracted by what we see and even struggling to experience God. There is this moment, however, when we cover our eyes and prepare to say the Shema, that everything becomes quiet and we can begin focusing on those words that have been said for generations.

We can stop and just listen.

Sometimes I think that what we need most in the world is to listen to one another and to pay attention to our own inner voices without interruption. Shema Yisrael, Shema to the world, Shema to one another, Shema to ourselves, Shema to God. Maybe if we did more listening, we would be able to once again experience God and start seeing the world differently.

Rabbi Corey Helfand is the spiritual leader of Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City. He can be reached at rabbi@peninsulasinai.org.

Rabbi Corey Helfand

Rabbi Corey Helfand is the spiritual leader of Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City. He can be reached at rabbi@peninsulasinai.org.