Doing and Hearing

Posted on February 19, 2020

By Hazzan Barbara Barnett 

In this week’s Torah portion Mishpatim (Exodus 24:7), Moses took up “the book of the covenant and read in the hearing of the people; and they said:  ‘All that the Eternal has spoken will we do, we will hear.’” Not “we will hear and we will do” but “na’aseh v’nishma” –doing first –then hearing.  A paradox, perhaps?

I am writing this just having arrived home from Song Leader Boot Camp, an annual gathering in St. Louis of about 400 cantors, rabbis, songleaders and educators (and a ton of Ramah and day school kids) to meet, to study, to sing, to share at whatever skill and knowledge level they possess—learned or seeking; fluent in the tefilot, or song leaders reading transliteration or singing wordless prayer (niggunim).

One of my favorite sessions plunged into the Sh’ma—a simple, single line, often the first words of prayer we teach our children as we tuck them into bed each night). The Sh’ma is a daily reminder of our one-ness with G-d and that G-d is One. “Listen (up), Israel! Hashem is our G-d; Hashem is One.”

But listening and hearing (and they are different concepts) are not easy endeavors. It takes work to hear above the cacophony of everyday life. It’s easier to “do” and think about it later. To unpack what you’ve just done and hear…understand (or however you want to put it) the action. It’s in the “hearing” that actions are elevated, internalized and able to be passed on as more than rote rituals, meaningless tasks that we do…because we’re supposed to. And often the real “hearing” can only come after the “doing.”

Actions often come first. Yes, sometimes we act based on study, understanding, etc. But I can’t help but feel after this lovely conference with many, many scholars, teachers, rabbis as well as learners and explorers of Judaism that all of us will have a moment of doing first (sometimes something that feels a wee bit uncomfortable perhaps), understanding the “why” and having that “aha!” moment later (maybe much later).

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that one is asked to “do more than he understands in order to understand more than he does.”

So, I want to offer an invitation in the realm of tefilah…prayer. Pick a prayer. Maybe it’s the Sh’ma or the V’ahavta or a single blessing in the Amidah. Read it (English is fine). Aloud. Listen to yourself read it.  But really hear it. What does it say about you and G-d or you as Jewish person…or “just” a person. Sh’ma. Listen. Hear. Understand.