When the wise scribe asked Yeshua, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Yeshua answered with the opening lines of the Shema. And indeed, the very first word, shema, is in the imperative form in Hebrew—it’s a commandment. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (in the Koren Siddur) argues that it is better translated as “Listen,” which implies active obedience to the commandment—listen up, pay attention—rather than just passive hearing.
Now, obedience to any commandment, even one coming from God himself, takes humility, but listening especially requires humility, for a couple of reasons. First, listening to someone else is not about me, but about them. It’s not about my need to express myself, to be understood, to explore my inner workings, but about the other. In this case, the other is Hashem, so it’s vital to humbly hear him. Second, listening requires me to set aside my preconceptions, my theoretical constructs, all the cool stuff I already know, to humble myself, and pay attention to what the other (God in this case) is actually going to say.
In The Year of Living Biblically, A.J. Jacobs, a secular, mostly assimilated Jew, sets out to “follow the Bible as literally as possible” for one year. When he tackles the commandment to honor your parents, he has a realization:
I don’t treat them nearly well enough. I honor them only in a lip-service way. I call them every weekend, but I spend the twenty minutes of the phone call playing hearts on my PowerBook or cleaning the closet while tossing out the occasional ‘mm-hmmm.’
So in the biblical year, I’ve been on a mission to reform. . . . And to actually listen to what my parents say during our weekly calls. Listening is a key theme in the Scriptures. Or in Hebrew, Shema. In fact, the Shema . . . is considered the most important prayer in Judaism.
The Shema is not only the most important prayer; it’s also the greatest of the commandments, and it begins with “Listen!” Jacobs discovers that listening doesn’t come automatically, but requires some humility. Yeshua underlines this point when he says repeatedly, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” (Matt. 11:15, 13:19, etc.).
Listen requires humility. I remember a story from my pre-Yeshua, Zen, phase. A master sits down for tea with his disciple, starts pouring into the disciple’s cup . . . and doesn’t stop. The tea overflows the cup and runs out onto the table until the disciple finally shouts, “Master, please, stop! Why do you keep pouring the tea when the cup won’t hold any more?” “You’re like the cup,” says the master. “You’re already filled up with your own ideas and there’s no room for anything new.” Likewise, we’re often kept from listening, from learning anything new, because we already know so much.
So listening requires humility, and in turn it might teach us something about humility. For this week, then, practice each day one act of deeply listening to another human being. Focus on what they’re really saying (without all the mental distractions to which we’ve become so addicted), listening for what the words mean to them and why they’re taking the time and energy to say them. Pay attention to someone else, at least once each day, to strengthen the middah of humility. And—who knows? —you might learn something new!