Listen and Respond

On the New Year we learn to pay closer heed to the words we speak, their impact on others and the subtle messages our words convey. As we listen more acutely
to the call for help from others, we also take upon ourselves the duty to respond in a timely manner and rally around those in need.

Ha’azinu begins with a word for careful, intentional listening. It is a type of focused attention. The root of the Hebrew word is ozen, an ear, or to lend an ear. One commentator suggests that it was strange to be told to listen before God’s words were actually spoken, but in reality, the opening of the heart and mind is a form of preparation to hear and receive (Kabbalah).

To paraphrase Rabbi Sidney Greenberg, who in his prayer book presents a prayer preceding the “Shema” that speaks volumes on this subject: Judaism begins with the commandment “Hear O Israel!” But what does it mean to hear?

The person who hears the news and thinks only of how it affects the market hears but does not really listen. The person who walks amid the songs of birds and only thinks of what will be for dinner hears but does not really listen. The person who hears the words of friends, husband, wife or child and does not catch the note of urgency — “Notice me, care about me, help me” — hears but does not really listen. The person who stifles the sound of conscience and says, “I’ve done enough already,” hears but does not really listen.

Cultivating our sense of listening is an essential skill for the sacred moments of a New Year. In the blessing we are commanded not to sound but to hear the sounding of the shofar. It gives us an opportunity for the sacred through holy listening.

Once we listen fully, how do we respond? Also contained in the sedrah for this Shabbat is a word that appears only twice in the Torah. “Like an eagle lights over its nest, over its young, does it hover.” The Hebrew word merachef, or hover, near the end of Deuteronomy, is found in Genesis describing God’s presence “hovering over the face of the waters” during creation.

Hovering implies an act of concern and an immediate presence. Our reaction to a call of distress cannot wait. On a personal note, friends who have lost loved ones, especially children, need to be surrounded by and given the overwhelming embrace of friends and family.

A time of crisis for our people demands no less. When we find Israel vilified at the European Parliament and by a former American president as an “apartheid state,” we cannot allow that perversion of truth and defamation to stand. When journalists like Philippe Karsenty expose the irresponsibility of the French state television in airing the fraudulent depiction of the killing of a Palestinian father and son, which resulted in mass hysteria in the Arab world, we must stand by him and demand justice. There will be many opportunities for us to listen and to hover in the coming year.

On these days of repentance and soul-searching, it is worthy to note that a teshuva, most commonly defined as repentance, also means a response. Let us listen and respond rapidly to the needs of our friends and neighbors. Let us be fully present for each other. May our prayers lead to actions that merit our inscription for a sweet year of life and peace.

L’Shana tova tikateyvu.

David Baron is rabbi of the Temple of the Arts at the Wilshire Theatre in Beverly Hills.