Tuesday, October 27th 2020   |

Say Little Do Much: “Hear!”


“Shema Yisrael!” The Shema is the most famous and central prayer of Jewish tradition. We teach this verse to our children as soon as they are able to speak, and we strive to make these prayerful sentiments our final words on Earth.

“Yet,” Solomon Schechter observed, “no agreement has been reached as to the exact rendering” – the precise translation of the Shema. Hear, O Israel? Listen, O Israel? Hearken, O Israel? Bible and prayerbook translations vary.

A congregant of mine (a Navy veteran) plausibly suggested the militaristic “Now hear this!” Schechter concluded, in his analysis of the Shema, that the Jew “cannot translate it, but he feels it and is it.”

In our effort to understand the Shema, we are assisted (albeit inadvertently) by Nicolas Malebranche, a 17th century philosopher and Catholic priest, who wrote that “Attention is the natural prayer of the soul.” Now hear this: whatever its opening word means, the Shema demands our attention, and thereby elicits our most soulful prayers.

The Shema also invites us to pay attention to each other: to listen to the pain, to hear the perspectives, to hearken to the concerns of fellow human beings, even (perhaps especially) those with whom we differ.

Shema Yisrael! A willingness to listen is the essence of our creed.

(Rabbi Joseph H. Prouser is the rabbi of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey and is the National Chaplain of the National Jewish Committee on Scouting.)

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