(Avot 6:6) There are 48 ways to acquire Torah, including...shomei'a umosif, listening and commenting...
(Deuteronomy 12:28) Sh'mor v'shama'ta eit kol had'varim ha'eileh...; Be careful to listen to all of the things I command you...
Every teaching of Torah has a single authoritative meaning.
Unfortunately, no one knows what that meaning is.
When God revealed Torah to Moses, it was given in the language of human beings so that we would speak its words and discuss them. In doing so, it was (and is) God's hope that they would enter into the fiber of our beings. They would, in an organic sense, become a part of us. And therefore we would, in an organic sense, become a part of Torah. When our lives become integrated with Torah, we listen to the world with sacred ears, view it with sacred eyes and touch with sacred hands. And if we are successful in doing so, then the commentary we issue is one of both words and deeds.
Here is a story from Rabbi Rodney Mariner of London:
Last year at Ne'ilah, I knew what my theme for the nine sermons I would preach over the Yamim Noraim for this year would be. Its not that I'm a particularly well organized person, it's just that something aggravated me sufficiently that I thought I would like to address it and at the same time give my congregation a lesson in the fundamentals of Judaism.
The story: I've been rabbi of my community k'nein horo, for 23 years and last Kol Nidrei when we reached the viddui, I happened to glance behind me at the congregation. We have a family, a dynasty that on a good day can occupy three rows (the Cartwrights* of the kehillah). The congregation were all standing, with the exception of a good number of 'Cartwrights'. The choir, who on a bad day would give serious competition to the angelic hosts on their best, made steady progress to the sublime conclusion of the Lewandowsky composition. "We are not so insolent or obstinate to say before You... 'We are righteous. We have not sinned.' Indeed we have sinned." Just at "we are righteous" the sitters stood and it looks to me like there's a family joke going on here, one that has them proclaiming, "We are righteous," by standing up and the choir and the congregation agreeing by singing, "We have sinned."
Over the course of the following day I found myself at every viddui checking on `Cartwrights' and becoming increasingly incensed when the sitters stood only at tzaddikim anachnu – I was already clocking up sins before the final tekiah.
But I had my theme for 5766: "What do we stand for?" Please note that in the spirit of the liturgy which has a passion for second person plural, it was not "What do the Cartwrights stand for?" All year I've squirreled away anything that might be relevant to the theme.
Now here's the thing. Last week I enjoyed the hospitality of two of the `Cartwrights' at their delightful country. Knowing what was driving my sermonising this year, I decided to ask why tzaddikim anachnu was the cue for so many members of her family to stand. It turns out that there was no provocation involved here, rather something much more of a family custom and something very chastening for the shmendrick who asked the question.
Mrs nee Cartwright said she thought (and several cell phone calls to various family members confirmed) that the minhag arose because of the frailty of her mother's mother, who in her latter years was unable to stand for too long but always made a special effort for ashamnu and the al chet. Out of respect, her family stayed seated and tzaddikim anachnu became the cue for whichever of her grandchildren flanked her, to boost her to her feet, at which point the other sitters stood. The custom continued even after Oma's death and in due course, when her daughter reached the same stage of frailty, she received her own tzaddikim boost.
Rabbi Mariner concludes: I share the story in part as my own personal confessional but also because it is a salutary lesson, should we need it, that customs don't develop because rabbis decide they should but because occasionally people, all by themselves do the right thing for the right reason. If we're lucky, rabbis may even get to preach about it.
And Rabbi Moline adds: The devotion of the great-grandmother was powerful, and the respect for her was more powerful still. The commentary that this family wrote by listening closely to the sacred words added to the single authoritative meaning and enhanced it for generations. We should all be so privileged to write a commentary with our lives.
How can you be shomei'a umosif? Choose a verse from the Torah – this week's portion offers many candidates – that can find regular expression in your life. Develop a way to express it without words and be diligent about practicing it until it becomes a part of your life. If you like, write down your impressions of how that teaching arises at the end of each day you put it into practice. You will have your own commentary.
* for those too young to remember, the Cartwrights were the wealthy clan that owned the Ponderosa in the TV western, "Bonanza."