Sh’ma! Listen!

This year Purim begins on March 7th. The Shabbat prior to the festival is called Shabbat Zachor, because the second Torah reading begins, Zachor Amalek – ‘Remember Amalek’( Deuteronomy 25: 17-19). Amalek attacked the Israelites from the rear as they were fleeing Egypt, and the Book of Esther informs us that the wicked Haman was his descendant (Esther 3:1).

We Jews do a lot of remembering. We are also preoccupied with keeping mitzvot, the commandments. Quoting the two versions of the Shabbat commandment (Exodus 20:8ff. and Deuteronomy 5: 12ff.), that begin Zachor, ‘Remember’, and Shamor, ‘Keep’, respectively, the Erev Shabbat song that welcomes the Sabbath as a bride, Lecha Dodi, is a weekly reminder that ‘remembering’ and ‘keeping’ is what Jewish life is all about.

But there is another, arguably, more important command, Sh’ma! ‘Listen!’ Indeed, unlike the words, Zachor and Shamor, Sh’ma is actually an imperative, grammatically speaking. Traditionally, Jews recite the Sh’ma every evening and morning, as it says: ‘when you lie down and when you rise up’ (Deuteronomy 6:7). But do we actually do much listening? Maybe that’s why the word has to be in the imperative form. It’s as if, each day, we need to be reminded: Sh’ma! ‘Listen!’

Listen to what? Are we simply being exhorted to pay heed to the words of the Torah? What does it mean to ‘listen’? Traditionally, we Jews do a lot of reading, which is perhaps why so many of us – me included – have to wear glasses. Listening requires being receptive to new ideas, new voices and new experiences. The imperative – Sh’ma! – is about paying attention to what is going on in the society around us. It is also about paying attention to our own inner voice and our own questions. According to the Torah, our ancestors responded to their experience of the Eternal One at Mount Sinai, by saying, na’aseh v’nishma, ‘we will do and we will listen’ (Exodus 24:7). We will do – an agreement to act. We will listen – a commitment to continue to listen out for the voice of the Eternal in every time and in every place. Sh’ma! Listen! Here and now.