Listen Deeply, Awaken the Soul

From the Haftarah of Parshat Re'eh:

(ג) הַטּ֤וּ אָזְנְכֶם֙ וּלְכ֣וּ אֵלַ֔י שִׁמְע֖וּ וּתְחִ֣י נַפְשְׁכֶ֑ם וְאֶכְרְתָ֤ה לָכֶם֙ בְּרִ֣ית עוֹלָ֔ם חַֽסְדֵ֥י דָוִ֖ד הַנֶּאֱמָנִֽים׃
(3) Incline your ear and come to Me; Hearken, and you shall be revived. And I will make with you an everlasting covenant, The enduring loyalty promised to David.

Incline your ear. Listen. This spiritual direction is central to Jewish experience and all Jewish life. It is the bedrock of our existence. It is the most famous line of our Hebrew prayers: "Shema Yisrael!" Listen, Israel. Listen, children. Listen - collectively and individually; God asks us to hear the Divine voice and define the holy way forward.

The prophet Isaiah helps us achieve holy listening, by giving us further guidance. The verse begins, "Incline your ear..." There is a physical preparation that you must do. There is an inner intentionality that we must seed, nourish and engage. Then and only then can we truly hear. And what comes with hearing? The soul is awakened!

(ד) שְׁמַ֖ע יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ יְהוָ֥ה ׀ אֶחָֽד׃
(4) Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.

With each Shema, Isaiah explains, there is a renewal of the covenant.

Through the cacophony of noise and voices that obscure the voice of God breaks through or quietly whispers. The ear hears, the mind discerns.

God helps those who wish to hear the echoes and catch the soundwaves from Sinai.

(א) אָנֹכִי ה' אֱלֹהֶיךָ, הֲדָא הוּא דִכְתִיב (דברים ד, לג): הֲשָׁמַע עָם קוֹל אֱלֹהִים, הַמִּינִין שָׁאֲלוּ אֶת רַבִּי שִׂמְלָאי אָמְרוּ לוֹ אֱלֹהוֹת הַרְבֵּה יֵשׁ בָּעוֹלָם, אָמַר לָהֶם, לָמָּה, אָמְרוּ לוֹ, שֶׁהֲרֵי כְּתִיב: הֲשָׁמַע עָם קוֹל אֱלֹהִים, אָמַר לָהֶם, שֶׁמָּא כָּתוּב מְדַבְּרִים, אֶלָּא (דברים לד, ג): מְדַבֵּר. אָמְרוּ לוֹ תַּלְמִידָיו, רַבִּי, לָאֵלּוּ דָּחִיתָ בְּקָנֶה רָצוּץ, לָנוּ מָה אַתָּה מֵשִׁיב, חָזַר רַבִּי לֵוִי וּפֵרְשָׁהּ, אָמַר לָהֶם: הֲשָׁמַע עָם קוֹל אֱלֹהִים, כֵּיצַד, אִלּוּ הָיָה כָּתוּב קוֹל ה' בְּכֹחוֹ, לֹא הָיָה הָעוֹלָם יָכוֹל לַעֲמֹד, אֶלָּא (תהלים כט, ד): קוֹל ה' בַּכֹּחַ, בַּכֹּחַ שֶׁל כָּל אֶחָד וְאֶחָד, הַבַּחוּרִים לְפִי כֹּחָן וְהַזְּקֵנִים לְפִי כֹּחָן וְהַקְּטַנִּים לְפִי כֹּחָן. אָמַר הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא לְיִשְׂרָאֵל, לֹא בִּשְׁבִיל שֶׁשְּׁמַעְתֶּם קוֹלוֹת הַרְבֵּה תִּהְיוּ סְבוּרִין שֶׁמָּא אֱלֹהוֹת הַרְבֵּה יֵשׁ בַּשָּׁמַיִם, אֶלָּא תִּהְיוּ יוֹדְעִים שֶׁאֲנִי הוּא ה' אֱלֹהֶיךָ, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (דברים ה, ו): אָנֹכִי ה' אֱלֹהֶיךָ.

"I am Adonai your God," - It is written in Deuteronomy 4:33 Then the People heard the voice of the Lord" The heretics asked Rabbi Simlai - 'There are many gods in the world, as it says "elohim" (reading the Lord with a "lower-case" alef, the plural word elohim being gods to them)' In that case, Rabbi Simlai said, the verb would have been plural. His students then asked for a more complex investigation. Their teacher responded: how did the entire nation hear God's voice being that it is so mighty, as the Psalmist wrote: "The voice of God is pure strength!" (29:4) This means, their teacher said, that everyone hears God according to his or her own strengths and abilities, through their unique prisms. The young men their way, the elders their way, the children their way. God said to Israel: it is not that you heard so many distinct voices from heaven (when poetry talks of God's many voices) it is that so many among you recognize God's voice and know that "I am the one true God" [whose commandments must be followed]

What is God's voice like for you, in your life? Describe it. Think of the phrase dynamically (theologically) - God's voice. How does it manifest for you when you truly listen for it? Might there be some methods or spiritual practices that help us achieve this kind of deep listening?

Do we need to quiet ourselves in a deeper way, to truly hear the echoes of Sinai or God's voice in history?

אָמַר רַבִּי אַבָּהוּ בְּשֵׁם רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן, כְּשֶׁנָּתַן הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא אֶת הַתּוֹרָה, צִפּוֹר לֹא צָוַח, עוֹף לֹא פָּרַח, שׁוֹר לֹא גָּעָה, אוֹפַנִּים לֹא עָפוּ, שְׂרָפִים לֹא אָמְרוּ קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ, הַיָּם לֹא נִזְדַּעֲזָע, הַבְּרִיּוֹת לֹא דִּבְּרוּ, אֶלָּא הָעוֹלָם שׁוֹתֵק וּמַחֲרִישׁ, וְיָצָא הַקּוֹל: אָנֹכִי ה' אֱלֹהֶיךָ

Rabbi Abahu taught in the name of Rabbi Yohanan: when God gave the Torah, a bird did not chirp, fowl did not give flight, an ox did not bellow, heavenly creatures did not stir, the sea did not move, creations did not speak, but the earth was silent and mute, and the Voice emerged: "I am the Lord your God."

Is such silence possible for us? I find this encouragement to artfully construct a booth of silence around me, soundproof walls of sacred space. Even as I lovingly recall songbirds melodies and the rush of the seas' waters, I move myself beyond roar or rhythms of nature and the thunder of planes and all our technological wonders and creations. The goal of hearing is the goal of silencing but the voice of our Creator and Commander.

And when we do not exactly tap into the moments at Har Sinai, at the Giving of the Torah, we still channel ourselves into comprehending what we may of HaShem's voice and teachings.

Only the stubborn and rebellious do not hear! This is the message of the Torah in what is a difficult passage, if we do not read it as a metaphorical warning for all of us children.

(יח) כִּֽי־יִהְיֶ֣ה לְאִ֗ישׁ בֵּ֚ן סוֹרֵ֣ר וּמוֹרֶ֔ה אֵינֶ֣נּוּ שֹׁמֵ֔עַ בְּק֥וֹל אָבִ֖יו וּבְק֣וֹל אִמּ֑וֹ וְיסְּר֣וּ אֹת֔וֹ וְלֹ֥א יִשְׁמַ֖ע אֲלֵיהֶֽם׃ (יט) וְתָ֥פְשׂוּ ב֖וֹ אָבִ֣יו וְאִמּ֑וֹ וְהוֹצִ֧יאוּ אֹת֛וֹ אֶל־זִקְנֵ֥י עִיר֖וֹ וְאֶל־שַׁ֥עַר מְקֹמֽוֹ׃ (כ) וְאָמְר֞וּ אֶל־זִקְנֵ֣י עִיר֗וֹ בְּנֵ֤נוּ זֶה֙ סוֹרֵ֣ר וּמֹרֶ֔ה אֵינֶ֥נּוּ שֹׁמֵ֖עַ בְּקֹלֵ֑נוּ זוֹלֵ֖ל וְסֹבֵֽא׃ (כא) וּ֠רְגָמֻהוּ כָּל־אַנְשֵׁ֨י עִיר֤וֹ בָֽאֲבָנִים֙ וָמֵ֔ת וּבִֽעַרְתָּ֥ הָרָ֖ע מִקִּרְבֶּ֑ךָ וְכָל־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל יִשְׁמְע֥וּ וְיִרָֽאוּ׃ (ס)

(18) If a man has a wayward and defiant son, who does not listen to the voice of his father or mother and does not obey them even after they discipline him, (19) his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the public place of his community. (20) They shall say to the elders of his town, “This son of ours is disloyal and defiant; he does not listen to us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” (21) Thereupon the men of his town shall stone him to death. Thus you will sweep out evil from your midst: all Israel will hear and be afraid.

This section of the Torah is generally known as the "wayward and rebellious son" episode. Yet, read more as a mussar text, to teach a moral lesson to us all, it is a warning about our unwillingness to listen for God's voice through the voice of the generations who came before us. The mother and father are representative of generations past. They are also, mystically, different manifestations of godliness in the universe we live in and experience. "Understanding and Wisdom" are father and mother according to the mystical map of the Kabbalists. We must embrace the understandings and wisdom of the Sages and those whose interpretations and instruction guide us along holy paths. We must listen for the Divine voice that flows through earthly channels, that stems from the lessons of the ones who love us.

As Rabbi Aaron Cohen's exploration of the haftarah of Parshat Re'eh inspired this source sheet, I turn to a source that he brought near the end of his essay "Listening for Life" in the collection by the Maggid Press called "From Within the Tent: The Haftarot." Under the subtitle "Listening to One's Innermost Self" he told of R. Elimelech Bar Shaul writing about a new yeshivah student speaking with a friend several years his elder. The novice student inquired about the nature of the soul. The young man was looking for a way to understand how we hear God in our modern age.

The mentor answered the student: We left the noise and the tumult. We left our precious surroundings and its great and small matters. We entered into tranquil expanses, into the silent night We, too, have found tranquility, our tense soul has found quiet...and internally everything is quiet, all the shutters have been closed. The noisy outside world does not penetrate, it is not heard. And then, a great, deep, full moment of silence. The soul took the permission and the privilege to speak, without a voice, or a statement or the fall of dew in the morning, like the flower opening its petals...At that moment, the world was revealed to us in a new light...and so we began our conversation. The individual and the nation cannot be elevated spiritually except through momentous of silence, of inner, pure attentive listening. (Me-arkehei Leiv, 30-31)

What experience do you think the mentor is describing? Is it one experience? A series of steps or approaches to life?

If we read his reflections to the new student as making goals about listening and hearing and awakening our souls what aspirations can we define and envision?

What does is it mean to "hear God's voice" in our time and in our lives?