In my mussar work for the coming year, I’m going to focus on the Shema. (Mussar is a Jewish spiritual path that emphasizes ethical transformation. Check out rivertonmussar.org.)
The first ethical or character trait that we’re working on is humility, so I’m thinking about how humility relates to the Shema, and I decide that Listen – the very first word – is the link. Listening takes humility because it’s not about me and it requires that I set aside my stuff and pay attention to someone else.
This is in the back of my mind as I’m finishing up The Year of Living Biblically, by A.J. Jacobs, a secular, mostly assimilated Jew, who sets out to “follow the Bible as literally as possible” for one year. I come to the passage where he tackles the commandment to honor your father and mother and has a realization:
I don’t treat them nearly well enough. I honor them only in a lip-service way. I call them every weekend, but I spend the twenty minutes of the phone call playing hearts on my PowerBook or cleaning the closet while tossing out the occasional ‘mm-hmmm.’
So in the biblical year, I’ve been on a mission to reform. . . . And to actually listen to what my parents say during our weekly calls. Listening is a key theme in the Scriptures. Or in Hebrew, Shema. In fact, the Shema . . . is considered the most important prayer in Judaism.
The Shema is not only the most important prayer; it’s also the greatest of the commandments, as Yeshua taught, and it begins with “Listen!” Jacobs discovers that listening doesn’t come automatically, but requires some humility. Yeshua underlines this point when he says repeatedly, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” (Matt. 11:15, 13:19, etc.). Ears don’t automatically do the job for which they’re created.
You can read the rest of my comments on listening as humility at rivertonmussar.org after Shabbat. For now, I’m struck with the convergence between my thoughts about the Shema and Jacobs’ book, which was the inspiration for the Ed Dobson book I mention in my last blog, The Year of Living like Jesus. In between these two I’ve also read My Jesus Year, by Benyamin Cohen, an Orthodox Jews who spends a year exploring Christianity, mostly in its pop culture format.
Now I can’t really do a year of the Shema, since it’s mandatory for the long term, but I can focus on it more intently during this year of 5772 and see what I discover. In fact, I’ve already discovered the benefits and challenges of getting more serious about obeying it. It’s hard but rewarding to remember to recite the Shema twice daily (“when you lie down and when you rise up,” as it commands), and to literally “bind these words as a sign on your hand and as frontlets between your eyes,” by laying tefillin (often translated “phylacteries” in the New Testament), and most of all to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your substance.”
Now I’m discovering another challenge which is sure to be rewarding as well – to listen more deeply, generously, and undistractedly. I can imagine Hashem saying (in a paraphrase of his own Word), “if you can’t listen to other people that way, how can you ever listen to me that way?”