As our attention turns to questions of listening, I hope to seed your consciousness with thoughts and meditations that will begin readying the mental soil for all that lies before us. The great Jewish wisdom lineage to which we belong recognized that good questions are far more fruitful than good answers, and it’s in that vein that we begin.
Why does the most essential Jewish practice, the Shma, appeal to our sense of hearing? Why isn’t the prayer: See O’ Israel? Or Feel this you wrestling soul? Or smell the trail of divine spirit?
As we delve into ancient sources alongside modern ones, I attune us to the difference between hearing and listening. Hearing, in the English language, denotes the basic physics of aurality. Listening, is the far more complex practice of bringing consciousness to all that we hear, and all that we are not yet capable of hearing. Because Hebrew is ancient and primitive in some ways, the old sources don’t always distinguish between hearing and listening and we are left to decipher which meaning the old authors intended.
What is the essential Jewish teaching on listening? If, by our work this year, we are able to arrive at one distilled truth or practice to give to the world, Jews, non-Jews, spiritual and non-spiritual types, what will it be?
Here, at the very beginning, this is my sense of the Shma. It is an intention, invoked daily and at the most profound moments in our lives, meant to attune us to the interconnectedness of all the universe ... the divine is One. And that intention should actively shift our behavior, we should always be in the service of others, because we are profoundly connected in ways that we cannot know.
But isn’t that strange?! The most essential prayer of our tradition asks us to listen for something that we believe we are incapable of hearing. We are fragile little beings, incapable of feeling an embodied connection to all the world’s creatures and our divine source. Go and listen everyday, for something you can’t hear! Now that’s a great practice!
It’s the essential teaching of Judaism because it lays sound upon the chasm between who we are and who we are becoming, what we are capable of listening to, and what we might be able to hear one day. It’s a Jewish riff on the famous zen koan - What is the sound of one god clapping?
Rabbi Zach Fredman