What is Said and What is Heard

I’ve been on both sides of the bimah on the High Holy Days. Growing up, I would listen to the rabbi’s sermon, and I did the best I could, though as a kid and teenager, there was a limit to how much I could understand (or even focus on). But as I entered rabbinical school, starting with a student pulpit, followed by seven years in a congregation, I soon realized just how hard it was to write and deliver multiple High Holy Day sermons – themes that try to be timely and timeless, sermons that are the right length and keep people’s interest, always knowing it would be in front of the biggest crowds of the year. 

For the last 10 years, though, I’ve been back as a “Jew in the pew” – now hearing sermons rather than delivering them, this time with a new appreciation of how much time and energy the rabbi puts into their sermons. But I’m also reminded that the words that are spoken aren’t always the same as the words that are heard. 

This week’s portion, Ha’azinu, is a poem that, like most of Deuteronomy, is part of Moses’ valedictory address before he dies. But more important than Moses’ words is his hope that the Israelites will hear his message. And even before he speaks to the people assembled, he begins the poem by addressing the heavens and the earth:

“Give ear, O heavens, let me speak; Let the earth hear the words I utter!”

On one level, it seems as though Moses is asking that not just the people hear him but the whole universe, as well. Yet the Hatam Sofer reads it a bit differently: “Listen to me – you spiritual people whose thoughts are in heaven, and also you down-to-earth people whose concerns are more material. This message is meant for all of you” (Etz Hayim, 1185). It’s there to bring together both the eternal and the immediate, the theoretical and the practical.

In fact, Ha’azinu is read right around the time of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, usually (including this year) on Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat of “turning.” It’s the Shabbat in which we think about our actions and, perhaps, feel most connected to the Divine (or, at least, the Divine is most connected to us). And while there are many symbols of the High Holy Days, perhaps the most iconic is the ram’s horn – and there is a particular mitzvah surrounding it that speaks to this portion. 

Every blessing over a mitzvah is something that is active – to wash our hands, to light the Shabbat or Hanukkah candles, to shake the lulav, to read the megillah, and so on. On Rosh Hashanah, however, the mitzvah over the shofar is not to blow it but rather “lishmoa hashofar,” to hear the shofar. The obligation falls not on the person sounding or on the one calling out the notes of tekiah, shevarim, and teruah but rather on all of us who hear it. It may sound passive, but the active element is hearing the shofar.

We don’t always have control over what we hear. If you’ve been trying to concentrate when a siren wails, or overhear a juicy piece of gossip, or are surprised when your alarm goes off, you know that what we hear usually comes at us rather than us looking for it. The Rabbis even say that there are three parts of the body that are not under our control – namely, our eyes, our ears, and our nose: “Rabbi Levi said: six things serve a human – three are under one’s control, and three are not under one’s control. The eye, the ear, and the nose are not under one’s control, as one sees what is not wished for, one hears what is not desired, and one smells what is not wanted.” But while we certainly smell and hear things we may not want, if we willfully direct our attention, hearing is something we control. There’s a reason our most central prayer, the Shema, focuses on hearing rather than seeing.

So this year on Yom Kippur, as you listen to the sermon, give ear to the rabbi’s words. You may not agree. You may feel uncomfortable – both physically and from the message being shared. You may zone out a bit. But the key is to listen and to consider the ways in which these words might enter your heart. While the words they say will be important, the more crucial piece will be what you hear. For all of us, may the liturgy, the music, and the words of Torah inspire us to truly listen and then be inspired to act.

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