Often, in conversation, one party will ask, “Do you hear what I’m saying?” This actually means, “Have my words been heard and understood?” or, more plainly, “Do you get me?” Truly hearing another means being fully present; there’s no wiggle room for checking e-mails or taking a phone call.

So indispensable is the sense of hearing that Jewish law rules that one who is responsible for another’s deafness is obligated to compensate him for the complete value of his life. It’s as if he robbed another of all his faculties. By contrast, if someone is found guilty of causing another to become blind, Jewish law states that he must compensate him for the loss of his eye only.1 This reflects the prominence with which the Torah regards the sense of hearing.

Spiritual Hearing

The portion of Va’etchanan includes the first paragraph of Judaism’s main affirmation of belief: the Shema. The word shema means “hear.” The Shema is a Divine call to the soul to perceive G‑d’s oneness. A Jew is to be fully engaged two times daily when reciting this expression of faith.2 It’s an opportunity to connect with G‑d and to build a stronger relationship with Him.

When reciting the shema, we “hear” in order to deeply understand and integrate the meaning of the words. This daily integration is spiritually and mentally rejuvenating. It’s the antidote to an attitude of same old, same old, dullness.

The Connection of the Shema and the Ten Commandments

When the Torah was given at Mount Sinai, all of Israel proclaimed in unison: “We will do (na’aseh) and we will hear (venishema).3

At Sinai, the giving of the Ten Commandments was accompanied by both natural and metaphysical phenomena. The Torah describes that “all the people saw the sounds of the thunder and the lightning.”4 Rashi explains that the people actually saw that which was usually heard.

The last Hebrew letter of the word shema is an ayin, which means “eye.” Perhaps in this context the word shema can be understood to integrate both hearing and seeing into one expansive dimension. It connects us to the heightened consciousness that we experienced witnessing the revelation of the Torah at Sinai. The juxtaposition of the Shema following the Ten Commandments in this week’s Torah reading suggests an inner connection.

Two Larger Letters: ‘Ayin’ and ‘Dalet

Sometimes, a letter in the Torah will be written larger or smaller than normal. This anomaly is to call our attention to a deeper underlying idea or teaching. In the Shema, both the ayin in the word shemA (“hear”) and the dalet in the word echaD (“one”) are enlarged. These two letters spell the Hebrew word eid, which means “witness.” This is the only occurrence within the entire Torah where two enlarged letters appear in a single verse.

From this, we learn that the mission of the Jewish people is to be a holy nation,5 as the prophet Isaiah stated, “You are my witnessess.”6 Our mission began with Abraham and will continue into the future as the world fully recognizes the one true reality.

Furthermore, when those letters (ayin and dalet) are reversed, they spell the word da, which means “know.” The Shema merges faith with knowledge. These eternally relevant words have empowered the Jewish people in every generation to have their faith become so strong that we know it.

Making It Relevant

  1. Make concerted efforts to hear yourself and others attentively. Be fully present.
  2. Practicing mindfulness is important to increase one’s “inner hearing.”
  3. Recognize daily how G‑d’s expansiveness permeates everything.
  4. Avail yourself to learn more about the Shema.