Shema, Yisrael

In three separate locations, Torah records the Israelites’ commitment to accept Torah. In each, they promise to do: na’aseh (Exodus 19:6, 24:3). The third time, the text tells us, they answer: na’aseh v’nishma – “We will do and we will hear” (Exodus 24:7).

A midrash: “And they [the Children of Israel] said, ‘all that God has said we will do and we will hear,’ since they had initially prioritized doing. Moses said to them, ‘Is doing possible without understanding? Understanding brings one to doing.’” (Mekhilta d’Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai 24:7).

V’nishma. Literally: “we will hear.”

To listen well is to understand. To understand is to discern. To discern is to recognize what is right to do. We certainly are told this much: To do right is to hearken to Torah, to obey the true leanings of the heart. For what is our time here if not an effort to hear what our hearts can tell us, to discern what our hearts call for, to understand?

Listening, so Torah, entails a commitment to justice, certainly. In First Kings 3:11 we learn that King Solomon asked not for wealth or long life, but for havin lishmoa mishpat – discernment in dispensing judgment, understanding in order to discern what is right. Deuteronomy 1:16 tells us: Hear out your fellow men, and decide justly between all – fellow Israelite or stranger.

Last Shabbat we read from Parshat Yitro, which begins with listening. V’yishma Yitro, it says. And Jethro heard. He listened to the story of all that YHVH had done. He must have imagined the jubilation on the other side of the Sea of Reeds.

Did Jethro also foresee the challenges a free people would face? Free, the people would face the fear of starvation and thirst in the wilderness. Free, they would contend with unexpected enemies, face their first battles for survival. Famished, exhausted, frightened, and free, they would be forced to contend with day-to-day difficulties. Disputes, tensions, concerns. Arguments, conflicts, disagreement.

He listens, and he acts. He takes Zipporah and his two grandsons and, upon arriving at the Israelites’ camp, he listens again. Then he tells Moses, shema b’koli, listen to my voice, my discernment, my understanding. He offers Moses good counsel: Seek capable persons who will serve unencumbered by greed. These may be your judges; these may help you establish righteousness and justice. He gives the gift of judgment so that judgment can be a gift.

We believe ourselves, in this country, to be a free people. But are we a listening one? Do we understand what Moses says in the midrash, that one cannot do right without understanding right, without hearing?

We have all heard stories in these past weeks.

The woman at my eye doctor’s office who helped me order my new lenses was gentle, friendly. Her name tag tells me she speaks Spanish. I am relearning Spanish, so we chat first. Then we talk. She tells me about herself. She tells me she is afraid. Why? Her best friend was brought to this country illegally as a child. She is a DREAMer. She thought she would be protected from deportation by applying for DACA status.

This past week, we learned, it is by no means clear that DACA recipients won’t be rounded up and deported despite the protection promised them.

Two days later my Muslim colleague at UNCC shows me pictures of her car, covered with graffiti. It is crude, ugly. Wiping it all off before her young children saw, she tells me, that was a gruesome task.

It will not be enough to hear these stories.

Listening must lead to understanding, to discerning, and to acting justly. Torah tells us that this is our very purpose during our time on earth. And we know what it means when a people hears and does not act. We know the cost of apathy, inaction, and indifference.

Learn by doing. But do by learning, by listening. And may we all – by listening, discerning, and understanding – do what we know is the right thing. To care for the world and for those who live in it. To protect the weak and the homeless and the stranger among us.

Shema, Yisrael.

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Use Your Words (And Save a Life)

When I was a little girl – I’d say around four or so – I had this idea about where words came from. It seemed to me at the time that new words were coming my way almost every day. I was sure there was a big, beautiful building somewhere and that the building was filled with people who were busily inventing new words. I imagined them meeting and inventing. They would sit around a table, thinking up new and exciting words. Then, they would send them out into the land until they arrived in my neighborhood in a suburb outside of Chicago. I was sure there was a language company and its products would trickle down and out – for free.

I loved new words. I can still feel that little girl inside me, her eyes going wide with excitement: A new word, a new meaning, a new idea! She had a kind of happy delight in learning which grew, over the years, into an adult devotion to education.

When I went to college, I studied the things words are made of – stories and poetry. I became, first, a literature major. About halfway through my undergraduate years, I added a history major. I learned over the course of those four years that I loved words for the beauties they could create.

But increasingly, I was possessed by the ethics, the challenges inherent in making certain that words accurately described real human beings, real times and real events. It seemed to me that this task – discerning what I could be sure was real – was essential to creating a just society. Only when our words truly told us what was going on around us could we possibly do the work of reconciliation, understanding. Only then could we use our knowledge to make the world – truly – a better place. Studying history implied advocacy.

These days I find my eyes get opened very, very wide every day. That little girl inside me is expressing wonderment every morning when I read the news. She has even located the building where all the words are. The best words, in fact.

It’s nice, there. Gold curtains and busts and paintings and many people who are working very, very hard to create not just words and phrases, but whole histories.

She (and I) have learned new phrases. “Alternative facts” is our favorite. It seems we are not alone. The entire nation loves this phrase. “Post-truth” doesn’t seem as popular, but I like that one, too.

An amazing, daily outpouring of stories based on alternative facts are dizzying my adult mind. Three million people voted fraudulently in the last election! Refugees are dangerous! People got massacred in Kentucky and the press didn’t even notice!

I imagine all those people in that fine house huddling around the table working on these amazing stories, choosing those amazing words.

Of course, when I got to graduate school I learned that my equation of ethical historicizing and creating justice was too simple. After all, as Michael Foucault wrote, history is not an object. Discourse is. Discourse creates a set of rules for a given time period. Statements have a material reality: The rules of discourse are rules of power.

So the rules of our discourse have the capacity to destroy as well as to inspire. The rules we choose can save. They can also kill. That is exactly what will happen as long as that nice building and the people in it keep continue to churn out words, phrases, and stories as they have over the past weeks.

They have the best words for doing exactly that.

But guess what. I’ve learned words. So have you. Ours might be better. Let’s use them, and find out.

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