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
Many years ago, my husband and I translated into English S.Y. Agnon's Al haTorah, "For the Torah." This is a vignette told in the first person about a man who lies listlessly in bed. He listens through the wall to the morning service in the little congregation next door. It is Shabbat Shuvah, and the Torah portion is Haazinu, the same parashah that we read this week. Before his illness, he had often participated in this minyan, and he yearns now to be called up for an aliyah. "I heard the gabbai ask about me and I heard the people answer, 'That man died.' Whereupon I stood up and shouted from my bed: 'I'm alive! I'll be there right away!'"
But his clothes are scattered around the room, and he despairs of finding anything with which to cover himself. He grabs the first coat he chances upon, but it's so short that it doesn't reach his knees. "Over it I put my heavy black coat and hastily entered the synagogue. On seeing me, Mr. Yedidiah R'fael Chai, the gabbai, called me for an aliyah."
(Note: Yedidiah = "Friend of God"; R'fael = "God's healing"; and Chai = "Life.")
As he recites the blessing, he remembers the superstition that a living person summoned to a minyan of the dead is fated to die, and he wonders what is in store for "one about whom it is said in a minyan of the living that he is dead. Before I could arrive at a satisfactory answer, the reader finished my aliyah with the phrase 'God alone did guide him.' [Deuteronomy 32:12] I kissed the scroll and recited the blessing 'Who has implanted within us eternal life.' Then I said the gomel benediction — my gratitude for deliverance from mortal peril." And the congregation confirms his blessing.
Pirkei Avot 2:4 says, "Do not separate yourself from the community," but this man has isolated himself. He is thus without Torah, rendering him "a body without a soul," spiritually dead. He longs to return. He is a personification of the message of Shabbat Shuvah: "Return, O Israel, toAdonai your God," says the haftarah that gives this Shabbat its name. (Hosea 14:2) And the concluding phrase of the second aliyah in Haazinu shows him — and us — the way: God alone will guide us. Without faith, we are disorganized and disoriented. Frantically looking to cover ourselves up, we try on different lifestyles seek instant gratification. False to our authentic selves, we become spiritually dead. But in a world of competing value systems, Judaism can teach us what is transitory and what is permanent. Shabbat Shuvah urges us to return to God, to life, to the true spirit and substance of Judaism. How? By being part of a congregation and participating in the Jewish community; by truly listening to one another's needs, as Rabbi Zeplowitz reminds us; and by heeding the voice of God.
Haazinu, Deuteronomy 32:1–52
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,555-1,566; Revised Edition, pp. 1,398-1,412;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 1,251–1,270