Parshat Ekev begins by exclaiming that should we listen to the laws, and follow up by keeping and following those same laws, G-d will in turn protect us and keep His end of the deal He made with our ancestors (7:12). The word “Shema” (listen) appears 92 times in Sefer Devarim (Deuteronomy), and it appears in the most iconic and important declaration of “Shema Yisrael” (6:4), which qualifies it as a key directive. Rabbi David Cohen also points out (in his book Kol Hanevuah) that the Gemara (Talmud) is full of terms referencing hearing: “Ta Shma, Shema Mina, Mashma, etc. What’s most curious is that the word itself is not translatable, according to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. It means many things: to hear, to listen, to pay attention, to understand, to internalize and to respond. How are we to understand such an obviously important mandate?
Rabbi Sacks explains that Judaism is not about obeying laws, but about hearing them. G-d wants us not just to hear with our ears, but to listen with our minds. The bridge between ourselves and others is conversation: both speaking and listening, as Rabbi Sacks explains. Hence the double emphasis in the second paragraph in Shema of “Shamoa Tishma”, beseeching us to really listen, not just to His laws, but to others as well. Listening to G-d is easy, it’s listening to another human being that takes courage, a comfort in our self and defying our own vulnerabilities. Rabbi Sacks concludes that listening is the greatest gift we can give to another human being, but it’s also the greatest gift we can give ourselves.