We all know the Shema in the context of the verse: Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheynu, Adonai Echad [Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One]. But, the Hebrew word Shema means so much more than “Hear.”
In his book: Lessons in Leadership: A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible, Jonathan Sacks points out that, in its various uses in the Bible, Shema may mean: hear; hearken; completely obey; pay attention; heed; and even, understand! So, for instance, in the story of the Tower of Babel, God intervenes in the project of building the tower by coming down and confusing the language of the people so that they will not understand one another – so that there will be a breakdown of communication. In the Tower of Babel story, the Bible tells us that God says: lo yishme’u ish sefat ray’eyhu [that they may not understand one another’s speech] (Genesis 11:7). Clearly, there is so much more to the verb Shema than appears on the surface!
What we might not know is that the word Shema appears over ninety times (in its various grammatical forms) in the Book of Deuteronomy. And, in our weekly Torah portion of Ekev, the word Shema appears more than once (see for example: Deuteronomy 7:12; 9:1; 9:23; and 11:13).
Taking into account the fact that Shema is so central to our Bible and that it means so much more than a command to hear, to listen, or to simply obey – one might wonder:
Is Judaism, as represented by the Shema, best served by rote obedience to commandments?
From the differing nuances attached to the word Shema, it would seem that, although we are supposed to hear and obey our tradition’s teachings, we are also supposed to listen deeply. We are supposed to give ourselves time to absorb and to understand the value of the teachings of Jewish tradition.
How much time do we devote to deep listening to the teachings of our tradition? How much time do we devote to deep listening to one another?
The busy lives we lead do not lend themselves to deep listening of any kind. But, then our tradition gives us the gift of Shabbat! On Shabbat, the day of rest, we have the opportunity to do some deep listening both to the teachings of our tradition and to one another.