PLEASE NOTE: Though in many years these two parshiyot are combined, this year they are read on consecutive weeks. Novertheless, they are combined here. The last in the sequence of these columns will arrive near Simchat Torah (October 26). You will also receive, after the holidays, two missing columns (B'reishit and D'varim). You may also receive other kinds of messages from me in the meantime. Shanah tovah!
(Avot 6:6) There are 48 ways to acquire Torah, including...ham'kavein et shmu'ato..., hearing with intensity...
(Deuteronomy 31:13) Uv'neihem asher lo yad'u yish'm'u v'lamdu l'yir'a et adonai eloheikhem...; And their children who did not know [these events] will hear and learn to be in awe of the Lord their God...
Most people think I talk for a living. My college roommate once observed to a roomful of people at the synagogue that my course of studies in college resulted in a Bachelor of Science in Speech Communication – in other words, a degree in talking. While it is true that I spend an awful lot of time flapping my gums, what I really do for a living is listen. "Rabbi" may mean "my teacher," but rare is the time anyone pulled me aside and said, "If you have a few minutes, I'd like you to talk to me."
It takes an awful lot of courage for one person to share dreams or fears with another, even if the listener is someone who will treat the information with confidentiality. I try very hard to listen beneath the surface in such circumstances; usually, I can hear something of what is not being said as clearly as the words that escape from the mouth of the speaker.
I like to think I learned to do so from the very famous midrash on the giving of the Ten Commandments. According to this legend, God spoke only the first letter of the first word of the first commandment to all of the people. At that point, they were so terrified that they begged Moses to listen to the rest and simply tell them what God wanted them to know
Of course, the first letter of the first word of the first commandment is alef, a letter that has no sound. What could they have possibly heard in the sound of silence that frightened them so much?
It took an awful lot of courage for God to share dreams and fears with the Jewish people. In that one moment, when heaven reached out to earth, the exquisite yearning that God expressed for the people was laid bare. Momentarily, God was vulnerable. Gathered to listen, straining their ears in anticipation, the people listened with intensity. Beneath the silence, the assembled throng could hear God's unmitigated self. It was too much to bear. The awe/the fear (yir'ah) was overwhelming.
It was at that moment that Torah entered the people.
Sinai's encounter happened but once, but its imprint was eternal. Every generation since has tried to convey to the next that moment of exquisite yearning. Moses's instruction to gather the people with regularity so that the story could be retold helps us understand how our obsession with recreating revelation began – the Torah service on Monday, Thursday, Shabbat and holidays dramatizes that unique experience. It is important to note that Moses urges the elders to gather the children who do not know the story and have them "hear and learn to be in awe." Developing the skill to hear with intensity allows the Torah that is beneath the Torah to be acquired. Hearing with intensity means hearing the message beneath the message.
Perhaps ironically, trying too hard to hear is as disabling as not trying at all. The listener, too, must be vulnerable and open in order to allow the yearning to enter his or her heart. Dissolving the barrier between speaker and listener – a sort of mystic union – happens only when each is willing to be open to the other.
Torah has no human qualities, as I hope is obvious. But what Torah represents is the path back to Sinai. Hearing the words of Torah with intensity allows it to enter you, and, in turn, allows you to enter Torah. Hearing the words of a comrade or colleague with intensity allows a similar intimacy that transforms you both. If that relationship inspires you with yir'ah, then you have found yourself in God's presence as that first alef is spoken.
What is the way to be ham'kavein et shmu'ato? Begin in a room that is as quiet as possible. Play a recording of a favorite piece of music – it doesn't matter if it is classical, rock and roll, country or folk. Listen to it, but ignore the melody line. Listen as if the percussion were the melody, then perhaps the bass line. Try to hear the harmonies and accompaniments as if they were the real theme of the piece, trying to be heard. Next, turn off the music and play just the harmony in your mind.
Then, talk with a friend.