On Hearing and Listening

Haazinu, Deuteronomy 32:1–52

D'Var Torah By: Shana Goldstein


Give ear, O heavens, let me speak; / Let the earth hear the words I utter! (Deuteronomy 32:1)


"Yeah, mom, I hear you," the teen answers her mother. "Sure you hear me," the mother replies, "but are you listening?"

How often have we heard without listening, paid partial attention, or heard only what we wanted to hear? Perhaps for this reason, knowing human habits, Moses calls forward heaven and earth both to hear and to listen to his final song to the people.

Throughout this song, this last great monologue Moses delivers, parallel language abounds, beginning with the first verse. In biblical poetry, parallel language is often used to reach a stylistic goal or to emphasize a point. And imagery is doubled, driving home the message by means of repetition or reinforcement.

In the beginning of the poem, Moses calls the heavens to "give ear" or "hear" (haazinu) and then calls upon the earth to "listen" (tishma ). These separate verbs in Hebrew, haazinu and tishma, are synonyms on the surface, but reflect nuances in their different definitions.Haazinu refers to the physical act of hearing, perhaps due to closer proximity. It is true that haazinu shares a root-alef, zayin, nun-with the verb "to balance" (l'hitazein), indicating a deep sense of hearing, of weighing the information received. But tishma calls us forward to listen, obey, and understand at once. So, in recounting the collective memory of our people-the tried relationship with God, and the warning that the people change their ways-Moses starts the poem by urging us both to hear and to listen to the lessons our past, present, and future.

Is there really a difference between the two verbs? Inasmuch as there is a difference between vision and sight, there are distinctions between hearing and listening. In fact, hearing is simply the act of perceiving sound by the ear. If you are not hearing-impaired, hearing simply happens. It is passive behavior, just a by-product of having ears and all their working parts. Listening, however, is active; it requires conscious choice. Listening is how we attach meaning to sounds, leading us to learning. Listening is also how we show others that we care. It shows kindness and respect to listen to others and not just hear them. "Listening isn't a need we have; it's a gift we give" (Michael P. Nichols, The Lost Art of Listening, [New York: Guilford Publications, 1995], p. 251).

Many of us have been blessed with the ability to hear, but few of us have taken time to refine the art of listening. We are "hard of listening" rather than "hard of hearing." Often, as soon as someone else begins to speak, we begin preparing a response. We are not listening to understand, just to reply. Hardly ten words escape their mouths and our rebuttal is on our minds, if not already on our lips. Sometimes we are preoccupied with other ideas or worries and are unable to set them aside to pay full attention with our ears and our minds. Other times we hold preconceived notions about the speaker or the subject and tune out, hearing the words without listening to the message. And sometimes, we are simply self-centered, focused only on what we want to say, rather than what there is to be heard. We hear what we want to hear, instead of what is intended.

There is an old saying that God created us with one mouth and two ears so that we might spend twice as much time listening as talking. Perhaps the two ears are there to hear and to listen, to gather sounds and glean meaning. It takes practice to learn to listen and not just to hear; it takes effort to pay attention, understand, and take what we hear to heart.

As we experience the High Holy Day season, let us take the time to understand how we listen: to ourselves, our families, and our colleagues. As we hear the prayers and the music, may we listen to the meaning in those sounds. May we hear words of forgiveness and apology, listen to those we have hurt, and learn from our mistakes. May we heed our call for justice, listening to the challenge of our prophets, and may we take these lessons to heart. Our people have heard the message of our tradition time and again. Perhaps this year we will listen.


  • . . . One who walks amid the songs of birds
    And thinks only of what he will have for dinner
    Hears-but does not really hear. . . .
    [One] who listens to the words of [a] child
    And does not catch the note of urgency
    "Notice me, help me, care about me"
    Hears-but does not really hear.
    [One] who listens to the news
    And thinks only of how it will affect business,
    Hears-but does not really hear. . . .
    May we hear the call for help of the lonely soul;
    And the sound of the breaking heart. . . .
    May we hear You, O God
    For only if we hear You
    Do we have the right to hope
    That You will hear us.
    Hear the prayers we offer to You this day, O God
    And may we hear them too.
    (Jack Reimer, in Likrat Shabbat Prayerbook, ed. Jonathan Levine [Bridgeport, CT: Prayerbook Press, 1975] pp. 74-75)

  • The pagan perceives the divine in nature through the medium of the eye and he becomes conscious of it as something to be looked at. On the other hand, the Jew conceives God as being outside of nature and prior to it. The divine manifests itself through the will and through the medium of the ear. The pagan beholds his God: the Jew hears Him. (Heinrich Graetz, The Structure of Jewish History and Other Essays, trans. and ed. Ismar Schorsch [New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1975], p. 68)

  • On Rosh HaShanah it is a positive act incumbent upon every Jew to hear the blast of the shofar. (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Shofar 1:2)

  • Listen to Me, you who pursue justice. . . . Hearken to Me, My people, and give ear to Me, O My nation. . . ." (Isaiah 51:1-4)

  • The one who sounds the shofar into a cistern, cellar, or large jar-if one has heard the sound of the shofar, the obligation has been fulfilled. But if it is the sound of the echo that has been heard, the obligation has not been fulfilled. (Mishnah Rosh HaShanah 3:7)


  1. Read Reimer's poem in its entirety. Note how many times throughout the historical litany the people heard God but did not listen. Compare this with Isaiah 51:1-4. If "listening" and "giving ear" are two different types of hearing, what kind of listening does "hearken" represent? Do we listen only with our ears?
  2. Regarding the passage from Mishnah Rosh HaShanah, how is hearing the actual shofar blast different from hearing the blast's echo? Why doesn't hearing the echo fulfill the mitzvah of hearing the shofar blast? How does experiencing an echo-rather than the real thing-affect our ability to hear and listen to a sound?

  3. Consider Heinrich Graetz's understanding that Judaism is a culture of the ear, not the eye. Do you agree with this assessment? What mitzvot might change that understanding? Should Judaism's motto be "hearing is believing"?
Reference Materials

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


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