Watching the sunrise over Lake Tahoe is one of my great summer pleasures. I usually awake before my family and, in solitude, watch as the contours of the lake begin to take shape in the morning light. The serene stillness of this mountain silence is punctuated later only with the distant sounds of speed boats and water skiers, the mute screams of glee from those sailing beneath billowing parachutes pulled by fiberglass vessels. And if it is quiet enough, I can hear the flapping sounds of sails riding on crafts as they slowly pass me.
I have always had sensitive ears. I don’t enjoy loud cacophony. My taste in music tends toward the classics and jazz. I prefer the mellifluous to the abrasive. Additionally, I enjoy sitting in a quiet place to listen to the sounds of my own breathing, as if to reassure myself who I am and from whence I’ve come, who is my Creator and what is my unique and special truth.
I thank my colleague Rabbi Levi Meir for sharing with me years ago his translation of an essay on the significance of the sense of hearing written in 1928 by Dr. Adolf Altmann, the late chief rabbi of the town of Trier, Germany. Altmann concluded in his essay that the command "Hear, O Israel" — which appears in this week’s Torah portion — is more than a mere call to the people to pay attention. Rather, he explains, something deeper was being articulated. Altmann notes that the command "Shema!" is an appeal not only to the abstract realm of concepts, but also to one of the senses, that the keenest perception of all must embrace both the realm of thought and the sensory experience of hearing.
Altmann argues that hearing is the only sense through which God’s presence was revealed to the Israelites directly and definitively. At Mount Sinai the people apprehended God through the voice of the prophet Moses. The "Shema" in effect affirms that those who heard God’s voice must continually "hear" God’s word everyday.
But why hearing? Why not touch, sight, taste or smell? Altmann suggests that the tonal stands nearest to the purely spiritual among the senses. Tradition understands hearing to be, therefore, the best medium of sensory revelation, the most easily amplified into the infinite. As Mozart understood only too well, hearing is the means through which sense and spirit touch and the corporeal and incorporeal are joined.
Jewish mystics speak of the religious seeker’s goal of hitbodidut (solitude) — i.e., communion with God — of reaching outward and inward to that moment of meeting in which simultaneously God hears the stirring of the human soul and we humans hear God’s voice. Some say that God’s voice in this instance is the kol d’mama daka (still, small voice), like the sounds of a baby’s breath, or that which is produced as air passes quietly through the lips. In that moment of God hearing, Israel becomes aware of God’s unity.
Our tradition understands that each mitzvah (commandment) is a living transference of God’s voice that once sounded to Israel at Sinai. Every word and letter of Torah is the encasing vessel of God’s holy sparks, preserving them so that they may be rediscovered as they are articulated in the ears of every generation. Rabbi Leo Baeck taught that in encountering the God of Israel, the Jew discovers both the mystery and the commandment. Thus in the mitzvot are the spiritual and ethical linked, the metaphysical and the moral joined together.
Altmann has written: "Through the silent walls of hard prison cells hear the sighs, Israel; out of the lonely huts of deserted widows and orphans; from the bed of pain of the sick and suffering; from the quietly restrained anguish of the rejected and disenfranchised; from the mute looks of the timid and sorrow-laden; from the pale lips of the starving and needy, you, Jew, shall hear the cries of pain, without their having to be emitted. The cry of the suffering is the cry of God, which emanates from them to you. As the psalmist lets God speak: ‘With the oppressed, I am one in suffering’" (Psalms 91:15).
We Jews who say the "Shema" and understand its spiritual dimensions and ethical obligations become witnesses to God in the world. It is not an accident that the two enlarged letters of the "Shema" (the ayin and dalet) spell "witness."
The silence of a Lake Tahoe sunrise; the still, small voice in every life breath; the God- filled words of Torah; the screams of human suffering — all command our attention as if we, too, stood with our people at Mount Sinai.
John L. Rosove is senior rabbi at Temple Israel of Hollywood.