(Avot 6:6) There are 48 ways to acquire Torah, including...sh'miat ha'ozen, hearing...
(Genesis 11:7) ...asher lo yish'm'u ish el rei'eihu... (God confounds the language of the builders of the Tower of Babel) ...so that one person could not hear/understand another...
When I was a kid, I read all of L. Frank Baum's "Oz" books. Dorothy's trip to see the Wizard was only the first adventure. When the Wizard flew away, he put the Scarecrow in charge of the Emerald City. In that capacity, he sent the Tin Man to pay a visit to Princess Ozma in a neighboring city. Afraid she would not speak the language of her "foreign" visitor, Princess Ozma engaged an interpreter. Of course, the two dignitaries spoke exactly the same language, but the interpreter interpreted nonetheless, substituting absurd and even insulting statements for the real words. Even though Ozma and the Tin Man comprehended each other perfectly well, they became increasingly incensed with each other's insensitivity and belligerence – never challenging the interpreter's purposeful foolishness until they reached the brink of declaring war!
I sometimes get the same feeling when I talk with Christians. Theoretically, when we speak English, especially about God, we are speaking the same language. Yet, as we maneuver through the minefield of faith vocabulary, our interpretations of familiar ideas are enough to set us against each other. Words that are a regular part of our Hebrew-become-English lexicon – grace, redemption, salvation, love, spirit, revelation, resurrection, God – seem to morph into terms both misguided and threatening when they are spoken as English-become-Hebrew.
Even this Torah value from our mishnah is its own victim. Sh'miat ha'ozen is something of a redundancy. It means, literally, "hearing of the ear." Well, where else would you hear? Through your feet or your nose or your navel?
We sometimes speak of a listening heart, and generally praise an "active listener" who can communicate empathy and compassion. The heart, our tradition reminds us, holds two chambers; one is altruistic and the other self-centered. And when it comes to sharing a lesson of importance – like Torah – any other part of the body that joins the ear in hearing can be a liability.
Take, for example, the Tower of Babel. (The very name is a multilingual pun that reflects ancient language and anticipates English usage by a thousand years.) The story begins with a plan by humanity to use its newest technology (bricklaying) to reach for the heavens. Midrash suggests that the people became so focused on their mission that if a worker carrying a load of bricks lost balance and plunged to death, the other workers would cry – not for the lost soul, but for the lost bricks. These true believers who were building a stairway to heaven listened to a cry of despair with their hearts. Unfortunately, their hearts were set on achieving a temporal goal, and they could not understand the reason for the cry. God made their self-inflicted condition permanent.
It wasn't until Sinai that the situation was reversed. When Israel stood before the mountain, says another midrash, each person heard a different sound as the first letter of the first commandment issued forth. Ironically, that letter was an alef – a letter with no sound at all. Yet, paying rapt attention, the wise and simple alike understood identically the message of the one-ness of God.
Since then, we have proclaimed that essential lesson of Torah evening and morning, each time we recite "The" Sh'ma. We remind each other to hear what is really being proclaimed, free of our own layers of interpretation and explanation. There is time enough for commentary when we have truly heard.
And here is another irony. "Sh'ma" does not mean just the act of hearing. It also means "understand," inseparably from the physical perception. Whether it is Princess Ozma and the Tin Man, or Jews and Christians, it is not enough to hear each other. We must understand what the speaker means to say. And how much the more so is this true when we speak among families and community.
Here's an exercise you can try to sensitize yourself to the challenge. You can do this with a partner or by yourself, but either way, you might opt for some privacy!
Choose a sentence – something profound (Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one) or something innocuous (Tomorrow rain is expected in the late afternoon) – anything you like. Say it as many different ways as you can and try to repeat back in other words the meaning intended in the original. Be especially aware of your interpretation of syntax, affect and context.