You are already familiar with the most important text in this week’s Torah portion of Va’etchanan. It might be the very first Hebrew words you ever learned: Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad – Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One. Most commentary on the Shema focuses on the word Echad, One, the core idea of our belief in one God, monotheism itself. But for me the most interesting word in the Shema is not the word Echad, “one,” but the very first word, "Shema."
What does "shema" mean? Essentially, it means “listen” – or, since it is in the Tzivui, the command form of Hebrew, it means “Listen up! Pay attention! Hear what is about to be said.” So why was it necessary to order the Israelite people to listen?
Of course, if everyone was always listening we would never have to command it. No one insists that people pay attention when they already are doing so. This is a verbal effort to grab the wandering focus of the Israelites and get them to hear what is about to be said. Listen! Pay attention! This is important! And with the Jewish people that is never an unnecessary summons.
It is crucial that the next commandment after the command to Shema, listen!, is V'Ahavta – the commandment to love God. First, we are told to listen, and next to love. It's a fascinating sequence. The first, “Listen!” is a command that we can easily perform. We can be compelled to listen.
But how anyone be commanded to love?
Love, by definition, is voluntary. It must be given freely, generously, instinctively, emotionally, or it is not love at all. As the great Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig said, "Of course, love cannot be commanded. No third party can command it or extort it." So how is it possible for God to command us to love?
The answer is here in the familiar words of the Shema. We are actually being commanded to listen, because if we truly listen we cannot help but love. There is something precious, beautiful and sacred about listening that allows us to love. Without listening, we as human beings are not capable of love. For love to exist we must listen to the other person. Not just their words or their joys, but their feelings, their pain, their inner messages. It is only through listening that we find out what makes their lives meaningful, and can come to understand and truly love them.
This week is also Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of Consolation after the commemoration of Tisha B'Av, the ninth of Av, our remembrance of the destruction of both Temples. The great prophet Second Isaiah begins this week’s Haftara "nachamu, nachamu ami – be comforted, be comforted My people."
So how does God comfort the people at this time of catastrophe? Isaiah promises repeatedly that God has “heard” the people's pain, and since God has listened it is absolutely certain that God loves the people and will relieve their pain. At times of great loss, often the only comfort comes from knowing that someone is really listening – and can therefore supply the love that we all need to survive.
We know that our relationship with God is supposed to mirror our relationships with each other. The Book of Leviticus, earlier in the Torah, has already commanded us to love other people, “ve’Ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha, love your neighbor as yourself.” Now in Deuteronomy the Torah tells us to love God.
There is a great lesson in this sequence. For only after we have learned to listen to others, and to love them, can we come to listen to God, and so to love God. Only after we teach ourselves to listen, can we truly love.
May we remember this week to listen to those around us, and so affirm our love for them—and, therefore, for God.