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Sermon Parshat VaEtchanan/Nachamu 5779

Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson, Arizona

A guy needs a camel to carry him across the desert. So he goes down to the used camel lot and picks out a big, strong-looking beast and pays for him. Twenty miles out in the middle of the desert the camel suddenly comes to a complete stop and sits down.

The poor guy tries everything to get the camel moving again: talking to the camel, pulling the camel's rope, shouting at the camel, cursing the camel, begging the camel – everything he can think of. But the camel will not budge. Finally, the poor camel owner is forced to walk twenty miles back through the desert to the camel lot, and find the lot owner. He complains bitterly that, "You sold me a defective camel!" Without a world the camel lot owner picks up a huge sledge hammer – the kind you use to pound railroad ties – hops on a donkey, and takes the man back the twenty miles to the middle of the desert, where they find the camel sitting right where he had been.

"See. I told you he was a defective camel!" the man says. Without a word, the camel lot owner takes the sledge hammer, walks over to the camel, and gives him a tremendous whack right between the eyes.

"Oh my God!" the man yells, "you'll kill him!"

The camel lot owner calmly takes the camel's rope, and gives a gentle tug – and the recalcitrant camel immediately gets to its feet, ready to resume the journey.

"I don't understand– why wouldn't it move for me?" asks the buyer.

"It's very simple," said the lot owner. "First – first, you have to get his attention!"

I often think of that story when I read of the relationship between God and the Israelites or, in fact, any teacher and any student, or even any parent and any child. While I can hardly recommend using sledgehammers for the purpose, the first step is nonetheless the same – first you have to get their attention. And that seems abundantly clear in the central statement of this week's portion of Va'etchanan, which happens also to be the most important sentence in the entirety of Judaism.

You are all familiar with the text: Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad – Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One. The most interesting word in the Shema, for me, is not the word “one,” the core of our belief in monotheism, one God – no, the most interesting word is the 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.” And why was it necessary to order the Israelite people to listen? Why is it ever necessary to order people to listen?

Well, of course, if everyone was always listening we would never have to command that. No one insists that people pay attention when they already are doing so. Have you ever heard a teacher say "Listen to me!" to a group of completely attentive, helpful, cooperative students? Come to think of it, have you ever seen a group of completely attentive, helpful, cooperative students? No, this is a sledgehammer tap on the camel's noggin – Listen! Pay attention! This is important! And with the Jewish people that is never an unnecessary summons.

It is also remarkable that the next commandment after the command Shema, listen, is the V'Ahavta – the commandment to love. A commandment to love God. First, we are told to listen – next to love. It's a fascinating sequence. “Listen!” is a command that we can easily do, at least for a little while. With any luck, you have managed to listen to what I’ve said for the last few minutes, and are hereby commanded to pay careful attention – Shema! hear! -- what I am going to say for the next few minutes. If I had some authority to enforce my will – say, a short exam after services with rewards for listening and corporal punishment if you remember the sermon poorly – I could even compel you to actually listen. But how could I ever command you to love what I actually say? How can anyone – including God – command someone else to love anything?

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? What methodology has been invented here for compelling love?

I believe the answer is present right here in the familiar words of the Shema itself, and that it applies to much more than just prayer. We are commanded to listen – to really listen to God; because if we truly listen we cannot help but love. There is something precious, something beautiful and sacred about listening that allows us to love, and without which we as human beings are not capable of love. Unless we really listen, we cannot really love.

We are not talking about infatuation here. For that to flourish, the less we know of each other the better. But for actual love, 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 so come to love them.

There is a wonderful story about two Russian peasants drinking vodka. Ivan is very drunk, and puts his arm around Boris, and says sloppily "Boris, I love you!"

"You love me, Ivan," says Boris, who is not as drunk. "That is very good. So tell me, Ivan, what hurts me?"

"What hurts you?" says Ivan, "How should I know what hurts you?"

And Boris answers, "If you truly loved me you would know what hurts me."

This week is 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 the Haftara "nachamu, nachamu ami – be comforted, be comforted my people." But how does God comfort the people? In the whole cycle of these special prophetic readings that will go on until Rosh Hashanah, Isaiah promises again and again that God has heard the people's pain; and since God has listened, it is absolutely certain that God loves the people, that God will answer the people's pain. Comfort comes from knowing someone else hears your voice. At times of great loss, often the only comfort comes from knowing that another human being is really listening – and can then supply the love that we need to survive.

But listening goes even deeper than that. For if we really listened to each other, if we truly knew each other, could any one of us shoot up a Walmart or a garlic festival, or attack worshippers at a synagogue or mosque or church, or blow up an airplane, or bomb a shopping mall? If we were truly listening, could we avoid the news about these attacks on TV? And if each of us was really listening, Shema, could any of us ignore what is happening in detention centers all around our nation? Could we criticize a friend behind his back, or fail to help a woman in trouble?

We know that our relationship with God is supposed to mirror our relationship with each other; earlier the Torah commanded us to love other people, and only now does it tell us to love God. You see, 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 have taught ourselves to listen, can we truly love.

Rabbis Jack Riemer and Harold Kushner wrote a beautiful poem on this –

Judaism begins with the commandment:

Hear, Israel! But what does it really mean to hear?

The person who attends a concert with a mind on business –

Hears, but does not really hear.

The person who walks amid the song of birds

And thinks only of what will be served for dinner

Hears, but does not really hear.

The man who listens to the word of his friend, or wife, or child,

And does not catch the note of urgency:

Notice me, help me, care about me –

Hears, but does not really hear.

The one who listens to the news, and thinks only of how it will affect business -

The person who stifles the sound of conscience and thinks:

I have done enough already –

Hears, but does not really hear.

The person who hears the Hazzan pray, and does not feel the call to join in prayer –

Hears, but does not really hear.

The person who listens to the rabbi's sermon

And thinks that someone else is being addressed

Hears, but does not really hear.

On this Shabbat Nachamu, God

Sharpen our ability to hear.

May we hear the music of the world, the infant's cry, the lover's sigh

May we hear the call for help of the lonely soul

And the sound of the breaking heart

May we hear the words of our friends, but also their silent pleas and dreams

May we hear within ourselves the yearnings struggling for expression

May we hear You, God.

For only if we hear You

Do we have the right to hope that You will hear us.

Hear the words that we pray today, our God

And may we hear them too. Shabbat Shalom.

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