Shin-mem-ayin (the verb from which we get the word Shema) can be translated as: “to hear” and “to listen” and in some contexts “to heed” and “to obey.” This verb appears in seven verses in Parashat Va’etchannan:
But the LORD was wrathful with me on your account and would not listen (shama) to me. (Deuteronomy 3:6; NJPS)
And now, O Israel, give heed (shema) to the laws and rules . . . (Deuteronomy 4:1; NJPS)
Observe them faithfully, for that will be proof of your wisdom and discernment to other peoples, who on hearing (yishme‘un) of all these laws will say, “Surely that great nation is a wise and discerning people.” (Deuteronomy 4:6; NJPS)
Hear (shema), O Israel, the laws and rules I proclaim to you this day! (Deuteronomy 5:1; NJPS)
The Lord heard (vayyishma) the plea you made to me. (Deuteronomy 5:25; NJPS)
Obey (veshamata), O Israel, willingly and faithfully that it may go well with you . . . (Deuteronomy 6:3; NJPS)
Hear (shema), O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. (Deuteronomy 6:4; NJPS)
Each use of shin-mem-ayin is an illustration of an act of relating; whether between Moses and God, Israel and the nations, Israel and Torah, or Israel and God. The act of engaging in relationship known as shin-mem-ayin (a verb, something you do, an action) is one with a variety of consequences. The opportunity for Moses to enter the land of Israel was thwarted by God’s refusal to listen to his request. Israel’s listening, obeying, giving heed, to the words of God and Moses have direct bearing on their survival in the land and relationship with other nations. God heard them so they must now hear him. Listening becomes an act of righteousness.
It is the faith that we have heard, our willingness to hear others and each other, and our hearing of God that make us who we are when we are at our very best. Only in our shin-mem-ayin are we faithful to keep that for which we were commanded to do. As Moses’ sobering example in the beginning of the parasha shows us (Deuteronomy 3:23-28), only through God’s shin-mem-ayin are we able to receive God’s favor.
In this second parasha in the book of Devarim (“words”), we learn that words hold very little without their being heard, listened to, heeded, and obeyed. Our destiny(ies), our relationships, and our words are all deeply bound in the act of shin-mem-ayin. May we merit to hear and to be heard.