This week we read parashat Eikev in the book of Deuteronomy which begins by telling us, "if only you would listen to these laws." We’re familiar with the word listen that is used here: Shema. It is one of the central words of one of our most central prayers which was in last week's parasha: Shema Yisrael and in the second paragraph of the Shema found in this week's Torah portion.
In fact, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks tells us that the verb shema appears 92 times in the book of Devarim, Deuteronomy. We are a listening people. He points out some of the ways that the word shema has been translated in various English versions: hearken, completely obey, pay attention, heed.
The word shema is not simply an auditory action. It is an action, an attitude, a way of walking in this world. The Torah could have used a word to say obey or submit, but instead it uses shema, listen. The S'forno, a 15th century Italian commentator, interprets the words Shema Yisrael from that famous line to mean: listen Israel with your mind open. How can we listen with our minds open?
Elsewhere, the Talmud in tractate Brachot page 15a tells us that the word shema means understand and as such, one can recite the Shema in whatever language they speak and understand. It's more important to understand what you’re saying than to recite specific ancient words. Our tradition sees that it is not enough to recite the prayer without the ability to make meaning out of it.
So, Jewishly, listening is about hearing with our minds open, making meaning, and acting based on the understanding.
In the Book of Kings, God appears in a dream to Solomon and asks what Solomon wants. Solomon asks for lev shomeya- a listening heart- with which to decide issues of justice. Listening is not only something that we do with our ears. We use our minds and our hearts- the very same things that make people good educators and leaders.
We go into education because we strive to have listening hearts, because you have opened your minds and your hearts to truly understand children and the way they walk in the world. As we begin a new school year, I invite you to listen to your experiences in the field, your learning, and your expertise to expand what you are capable of doing, and what you are capable of listening to. You provide spaces for children and families to be heard and seen for who they are and for them to hear what they need in order to grow.
We are a listening people. May this school year be one in which we are all able to strive to always create places of understanding and meaning for the children, families, and communities with whom we work. For those are the communities that will touch people’s lives.