The Power of Listening

The title of the weekly portion usually epitomizes its content. Why did the Torah choose the word ‘Ekev’ instead of other more commonly used Hebrew words for ‘if’ such as ‘Im” or ‘Asher’, which express the same meaning. Apparently, the English translation of the opening verse “ve’Haya ekev tishmeun” does not reveal that nuance: “And if you do obey these rules and observe them carefully, the LORD your God will maintain faithfully for you the covenant that He made with your fathers”. What is the significance of the word Ekev in that context?  Furthermore, why does the Torah promise us a reward? We believe that this is not the ultimate way to worship G-d, as Antigonus said in Pirkei Avot (1:3): “Do not be like servants who serve the master in the expectation of receiving a reward.”

The key to understanding the usage of uncommon words is to look at the first time that the word appears in the Torah. The first time the word ‘Ekev’ appears is describing the punishment of the serpent: “Hu yeshufcha rosh, ve’ata teshufenu akev” – “They shall strike at your head and you shall strike at their heel”. In this context, the word ‘Ekev’ has a different meaning – ‘heel’ – rather than ‘if’.

The first sin of humanity, the sin of Adam and Chava, began with a misuse of their sense of hearing -‘shemi’ah’. They listened to the voice of the serpent instead of listening to G-d. When they were able to hear G-d calling them, they ran away from His voice and tried to seal their ears:  “Va’Yishmeu et kol Hashem” – “And they heard the voice of G-d…and the man and his wife hid from the LORD G-d among the trees of the garden.”

The head is our most upper and anterior part, the opposite of the heel which is the lowest and posterior body part. In order to correct the first sin and learn how to listen, we need to get to the bottom of things, from the head to the heel. Often, we don’t have the courage to truly listen to other people. We hear but we don’t listen, out of fear, insecurity or self-defense. When others speak to us and say things we don’t like to hear, we often cringe, become defensive and start to prepare our response while they are still talking, without really listening. We often listen to their ‘headlines’  – to what they appear to be saying, but we are not brave enough to get to the bottom of the matter – to the ‘heel’ – ‘ekev’.

When we are not able to really listen to our loved ones it is often because we think they are threatening us, when in fact they serve as the mirror for our weaknesses. We instinctively feel the need to get into defense mode, or to flee, block our ears, and even blame others for our errors.

If we have the courage and patience to listen to the end, to the ‘ekev’,  we can truly grow and deepen the bond with those closest to us. This will give us the courage to listen to opposing opinions, not to be afraid of them and not to try to silence them. Once we can let go of all these defensive strategies, we will begin to realize that true listening in the key to self-growth: “Who is wise? He who learns from every man.” (Avot 4:1)

We are all experiencing stressful times now. Uncertainty about the future, together with serious financial and personal challenges, are making people  impatient, angry and even verbally or physically violent. The sense that the political leadership is not helping people with these challenges is adding fuel to the fire. However, these negative behaviors are triggered by our default defense mechanism, as an instinctive reaction to the vulnerability and insecurity that we are feeling. Especially now, we need to pay special attention to the need for hearing and listening, in our families and our communities, as individuals and as leaders. The challenges we are facing  offer us the opportunity to let go of all these false protective screens and open ourselves up to the strength and resilience that lies within the authentic experience of vulnerability.

The entire book of Devarim deals with the power of hearing – “Shema Yisrael” – “Hear O Israel”, “Et ha’bracha asher tishmeun!” – “The blessing if you will hearken!” The true blessing is to efficiently utilize and develop the muscle of hearing. The consequences of truly listening are not a reward but rather a blessing. If we learn to hear, this true blessing will come naturally into our lives. So, do we have the courage, especially now, to let go and truly listen?

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