Listening (Parasha Haazinu)


The Book of Deuteronomy is full of words related to “hearing”. The most famous verse in the Five Books of Moses is related to the sense of hearing –“Hear O Israel, the Lord our G-d, the Lord is One.” There are many other references to “hearing” or “listening” in the Book of Deuteronomy, including the first verse in this week’s parasha – Haazinu hashamayim va-adabera; tishmah ha-aretz imre  fi, “Give ear O heavens, let me speak/Let the earth hear the words I utter”.  Where “seeing” or “appearing” is the most prominent of the five senses in the Book of Genesis, “hearing” or listening is the most prominent of the five senses in the Book of Deuteronomy.

Note that in this opening verse the poet uses two different words for “listen”.  The first word,  האזינו is translated as “Give ear”. The translation is well chosen because the root of this word is אזן from which the word אוזניים or “ears” is also derived. The word for “listen” in the second part of the verse is תשׁמע related to the familiar word שׁמע as in “Hear O Israel”……. שׁמע ישׂראל

The opening verse of this parasha also provides a good example of what is called “parallelism” in Biblical poetry. Instead of rhyming the words at the end of verses, Biblical poets match the ideas expressed in two phrases of the same verse, using different words. In the first phrase of the opening verse of our parasha, Moses asks the heavens to allow him to speak; in the second phrase he implores the earth to hear his words. Thus the biblical poet achieves a symmetry and balance in the poem’s verses, without resorting to rhyme. Ideas are rhymed, in a manner of speaking,  instead of words. 

 I am sure we have all had the experience of talking to someone  and feeling that the other person was not really listening. This is especially true when it comes to family life. A wife asks her husband, “Would you please go shopping for me? Buy one carton of milk, and if they have eggs, get six.”

A short time later the husband returns with six cartons of milk!

His wife was beside herself. “Why on earth did you buy six cartons of milk?

He replied, “They had eggs!”  

 You see, good communication is not as easy as it sounds. Misunderstandings can happen easily. One really has to pay attention and be focused on what is being said.

In the Book of Exodus, we are told that G-d speaks to Moses “Panim el Panim” or “Face to Face”. The Torah then explains that this is how friends speak to one another. This represents the level of intimacy that Moses experienced with G-d. Friends look each other in the eye when they speak, so that they can truly listen to each other, focusing their attention on one another’s words. Yet how often do we listen with one ear while our eyes and our other ear are on a computer screen or television? Do we listen with our eyes as well as our ears? 

Or consider this story told by Anthony de Mello in his book The Heart of the Enlightened.  A family settled down for dinner at a restaurant. The waitress first took the order of the adults, then turned to the seven year old. “What will you have?” she asked.

The boy looked around the table timidly and said, “I would like to have a hot dog.”

Before the waitress could write down the order, the mother interrupted. “No hot dogs,” she said, “Get him a steak with mashed potatoes and carrots.”

The waitress ignored her. “Do you want ketchup or mustard on your hot dog?” she asked the boy.


“Coming up in a minute,” said the waitress as she started for the kitchen.

There was a stunned silence when she left. Finally the boy looked at everyone present and said, “Know what? She thinks I’m real!”

Listening to one another is perhaps the most important capacity that we can develop in our lives. To make a person feel they are truly heard is a great gift. To be ignored, to feel like what you say does not  matter, makes one feel invisible and therefore be rendered “unreal”. Yet each and every one of us is of supreme importance and deserve our complete attention! The British writer and theologian C.S. Lewis wrote, “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilisations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit.” In other words, we should remember that we are all created in the image of G-d, and relate to one another “Panim el Panim”– face-to-face and eye-to-eye — showing the good will, love and closeness with another that G-d showed when G-d spoke to Moses.

When someone listens to us we feel respected and human.  Yet I worry that these days we do a great deal more talking at one another than listening to one another. With our social media, our Facebook and Twitter, we grow increasingly sophisticated about sharing our thoughts, feelings and experiences – but is anybody really listening?

Shabbat Shalom

Photo by saeed karimi on Unsplash