The book A Natural History of the Senses by Diane Ackerman is a beautifully written examination of the five senses. Using the insights of modern scientific research, the author poetically discusses the miracle of the natural world. In a chapter on hearing, she focuses on the way in which many of the words we use mimic the sounds we hear, for example, hiss, chirp, babble, and thump. This is true in Hebrew, too. For instance, bakbuk means bottle, echoing the sound of a bottle that is being drained of its liquid. At times the sounds that we think are important really are not, for example, a cricket's chirping, because crickets hear at a pitch that we humans cannot. Sound is slow (which is why we hear thunder long after we see lightning), but it has incredible range. The haunting rumble of whale song can be heard for thousands of kilometers, and the ocean booms with the worldwide chorus of crustaceans. Since all vibration yields sound, everything from the pulsing of a star to the motion of our cells can conceivably be heard.
The religious perspective on hearing is that we must make something meaningful out of what we hear. Are the sounds we perceive mere noise, or are they something more? The blast of the shofar awakens us to wrong and brings tears of remorse. A beautiful symphony evokes tears of joy and sorrow. Listening to the rustle of autumn leaves, we recall sleeping over at a grandmother's home when we were little, a link to all her traditions that we hope our grandchildren will pass on to theirs. Half a world away, we can hear the cry of children who are hungry and be moved to help them. To hear something, therefore, is not just a matter of waves in the air, tiny bones, and nerve impulses: It is how we respond to the sound that is truly important.
This week's Torah portion makes this point clear. It is named Haazinu, "Give Ear" — for the first word in Moses' final discourse. (Deuteronomy 32:1) Moses asks the heavens and the earth to listen, to give ear to what he is about to say. But the world, of course, has no ears. Therefore, the real focus of Moses' address is the people of Israel. It is we who are to pay heed to his promise and his warning. To listen is an important imperative in our tradition. Although most people think that sight is the dominant sense, we say, Sh'ma Yisrael, "Hear, O Israel." Why hear? Perhaps it is because sight is so overpowering that what we see is hard to deny. Hearing, however, is more subtle. To truly hear means taking time to listen and then to reflect. To hear means making an effort, for God's Voice rarely overpowers (which is why our sages, of blessed memory, called it Bat Kol, literally the "Daughter of a Voice").
In his final oration, Moses reminds the people to pay greater heed to the sense of hearing — in essence, to listen more attentively. As we begin a new year, the sound of the shofar still fresh in our ears, we would do well to do the same. What in our everyday lives do we hear? Do we listen to the young or ignore them? Do we take time to hear the stories of our elderly or only pay attention to those of our own generation? Do we hear the pleas of the hungry, not only those across the oceans but also those just a few blocks away? Is it God's voice we hear, or only the sigh of the wind? Haazinu, "Give ear, take heed, listen!"
For Further Reading
A Natural History of the Senses, Diane Ackerman, New York, Vintage Books, 1990