We are in the season of transformation. During Elul, the month leading up to Rosh Hashanah, we are called to engage in cheshbon ha nefesh, an "accounting of the soul." It represents a time to engage in introspection and outer action, righting wrongs we have committed against other people, seeking forgiveness from them and giving forgiveness to those who've wronged us.
It's such a large and daunting task that it seems too big to finish. It feels too big to even start. So where and how do we begin?
The biggest transformation begins with the smallest step - with the act of listening. Several times throughout Deuteronomy we are told, Shema Yisrael ("Listen, Israel"). When that phrase reappears this week, it tells us much about the act of listening itself.
First, we're not simply told to listen. We're told haskeit u'shema Yisrael ("Be quiet"), and only then "Listen, Israel." Listening can occur only after we've become quiet, after we've stopped talking, even to ourselves. We must create within ourselves a space, a silence, within which hearing can occur.
We must quiet our thoughts because we must hear not with our heads, but with our hearts. Take this story about Benjamin Franklin. He once sailed on a boat left adrift by lack of wind. When food grew scarce, the crew caught and fried some fish. Franklin, a vegetarian, was in a quandary.
In his words: "I balanced some time between principle and inclination until I recollected that when the fish were opened, I saw smaller fish taken out of their stomachs. 'Then,' thought I, 'if you eat one another, I don't see why we may not eat you.' So I dined upon cod very heartily and have since continued to eat as other people, returning only now and then occasionally to a vegetable diet."
Franklin concluded that, "So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do."
Living in the Moment
Another lesson about listening is that it's not about the past or the future. Listening, by definition, must happen in the present. We're told not only to "Be quiet" and then "Listen, Israel," but right after to do so hayom hazeh and hayom, "this day" and "today."
Among the curses found in this Torah portion is: "In the morning you shall say, 'If only it were evening,' " and in the evening you shall say, 'If only it were morning.' " It is a curse to be unable to live in and to appreciate the moment itself, to wish instead to be in some other time or place.
The ultimate call to listen is the shofar blown throughout Elul, and over and over again on Rosh Hashanah. The brachah, the "blessing," is not "to blow" the shofar but rather lishmoah, "to hear" it. After the brachah comes a moment of silence, then out of the silence the shofar. We fulfill the commandment not by making a sound but by listening to one.
As the Talmud says, "If one sounds the shofar into a well or a cellar, if he hears the sound of the shofar he has fulfilled the mitzvah, but if he hears an echo, he has not fulfilled the mitzvah." An approximation won't do, a reflection of the original isn't enough. The commandment is to hear the sound itself - as it is, for what it is.
In this season of listening, we are called to hear clearly, to hear honestly, to hear bravely. Such hearing is the beginning of transformation.
The work begins with listening. It ends with action.
Jeff Sultar is senior rabbi of Congregation Mishkan Shalom.