‘You weren’t listening, were you?’ I still remember from childhood the sound of that admonishment. I wonder if there is a child anywhere who was never reprimanded by their parent or teacher for that fault. Yet I must have listened to something, because the words have strangely stuck. I still hear them from deep down, ‘You haven’t listened, have you?’ accompanied by an intuitive unease that there’s something I’ve missed and that this ‘something’ may have been the real point.
A scene dwells in my conscience. Years ago, someone came to talk to me. It felt in the moment like an adequate communication; I remember responding to the questions I was asked with what seemed like appropriate suggestions. But I felt, rather I knew, as this person left the room that they were still carrying in their heart the burden of something unsaid. It wasn’t something obvious; I hadn’t cut them off in mid flow. It was rather that, if I had left a little more space, enabled a better attuned silence, something might have become clearer to the heart, whether formulated in words or not. That scene remains for me an inner chastisement.
Perhaps that’s why the opening word of Judaism’s best-known meditation is that single word, shema, listen. Yes, it’s the prelude to a theological assertion, that God is one. But it is also far more than that, or perhaps it is the essence of that: Listen, just listen, and you will hear. Rebbe Yehudah Aryeh Leb of Ger, known as the Sefat Emet, wrote just that about the opening words of the second paragraph of the Shema with their emphatic repetition, im shamoa tishme’u, – ‘if you listen you will surely hear.’
I don’t believe this is solely about listening to people, though that is endlessly important. How many individuals are there who would wish to communicate to us how life presses in on the quick of their soul, if they felt we would actually hear?
I believe that appeal to listen applies to the whole of life, to all of the living, breathing world too. A beautiful midrash teaches that in the beginning “the spirit that lives in the trees and nature conversed with humankind, for all beings in nature were created for mutual companionship with people.” (Bereshit Rabbah 13:2)
I don’t take this as sentimental nostalgia for some long-lost ancient Esperanto. Rather, I think it’s why, when the heart is sore, we so often seek the companionship of green spaces, the solace of woodland or seashore, and find quiet comfort in how the waves, or the trees, or the flow of the stream, commune without words with the soul.
I believe, too, that if we listened more, we would be humbled more, and would conduct our lives more heedfully and wisely. We would cause less hurt. Our heart would know more, and to know is often to respect, to cherish, even to love.
When, as we read this Shabbat, after all the rituals and formalities Moses finally enters the Tent of Meeting, he overhears God speaking and feels himself addressed. In truth, the whole world is a tent of meeting and there are a thousand ways in which we might overhear God’s speech.
Perhaps that sounds off-putting, too formal, too theological. I think of it simply as listening to creation, beginning with whatever it is we care about most on this particular day: that child, that birdsong. It’s not a listening with the ears, but in the heart. Then what we apprehend is not just that person, those unspoken words, that music, that blackbird, but something beyond all language as well, a welcome, a oneness which embraces us too as listening becomes presence, a togetherness with life’s heart.