Listening to the Message

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Re’eh, Moses continues his exhortation to the Jewish people, imploring them to remain faithful to G-d and to keep His commandments.

Toward the end of Deuteronomy 12, Moses prepares the people for their arrival in Canaan. He predicts that, upon reaching the land, G-d will do battle with the Canaanites and drive them out of Canaan, allowing the Israelites to settle there. Moses is very leery, however, of what will happen to the people of Israel in their new land. In Deuteronomy 12:30, he cries out, “Hee’sha’mer l’chah pen tee’nah’kaysh ah’cha’ray’hem, Beware, lest you be ensnared by them. Moses is concerned that after the local nations have been driven out or destroyed, the people of Israel will seek out the Canaanite gods and begin to worship them.

How ironic that 3300 years after Moses expressed concern that the ancient people of Israel would be enticed to follow the ways of the gentiles, this same fear of assimilation remains a primary cause of apprehension in Jewish life today.

Clearly, concern that the people would be seduced by alien values was uppermost in Moses’ mind when he called out to Israel about the life choices they must make (Deuteronomy 11:26), “Re’eh ah’no’chee no’tayn lif’nay’chem ha’yom bracha ook’lalah, Behold this day, I present before you, both blessing and curse. Admonishing the people, Moses continues (Deuteronomy 11:27): “Et ha’bracha ah’sher tish’m’oo el mitzvot Hashem Eh’lo’kay’chem ah’sher ah’no’chee mitzaveh et’chem ha’yom.” He informs the people that if they obey the commandments of the L-rd, their G-d, they will be blessed. But, if they fail to obey the commandments of G-d, and turn away from the path that G-d enjoins upon them this day and follow other gods whom they have not experienced, they will be cursed.

Scripture’s use of the Hebrew word “tish’m’oo,” to hear or to listen to the commandments of G-d, rather than the Hebrew word “tish’m’roo, to observe the commandments, is an odd choice, with many implications. The Hebrew word “tish’m’oo” most commonly means to hear or to listen. However, it can also mean “obey,” just as in English the word to “listen” may also mean to heed. The Sefat Emet (Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter of Ger, 1847-1905, Chassidic leader, author of Sefat Emet al HaTorah) points out insightfully that living a religiously observant life endows one with the ability to hear G-d’s voice among the conflicting messages competing for one’s attention in a noisy world.

The ability to hear G-d’s voice in the cacophony of multiple messages is undoubtedly one of the greatest challenges of our time. How does one remain moral in an increasingly immoral environment? Ethical and moral behavior doesn’t simply develop through osmosis or from preaching. Moses thus informs the contemporary Israelites, who were about to enter the land of Canaan, and all Jews, past, present and future, that ethics and morality are skills that require nurturing and training, like all other skills. Just as feeling like a plumber or a violinist in one’s heart doesn’t make one a good plumber or a good violinist, feeling like a moral person or a good Jew in one’s heart, doesn’t make one a moral person or a good Jew.

Obviously, having the proper attitude can help a person become a good plumber, violinist, and even a good Jew and a good person. But feelings are certainly not enough. Judaism insists that one must master the requisite skills through practice and training.

With so many conflicting messages competing for our attention in this noisy world, how can we possibly hear the message of G-d? Judaism asserts that G-d’s message is most audible to those who accept the “dominion of G-d” upon themselves, by practicing the rituals of Judaism and the mitzvot. Just as the heavy yoke of an animal enables the animal to accomplish much more, so does a person’s acceptance of the “yoke of Heaven” serve to enable a person to achieve much more. Furthermore, rituals and practices are also liberating, just as learning the alphabet and the multiplication tables are liberating and enrich the lives of those who master the information. The effort involved in studying and memorizing information may be initially difficult, but once the information is mastered, it is indeed liberating.

It is therefore not at all surprising that Judaism and Jewish education have proven to be the most effective method of educating large numbers of people, over long periods of time, to ethical and moral living.

The ancient words of Moses’ exhortation are as meaningful and as relevant today as they were 3300 years ago. We can reverse the process of the contemporary moral meltdown, if only we listen, if only we obey.

May you be blessed.