Yom Sheini, 22 Iyyar 5779
Monday, 27 May 2019
Parashat Va-etchannan 5775

Rabbi Richard Jacobi
31st July 2015

Listen, Pay Attention, This is How to Comfort

This Shabbat, unlike many other weeks, always has the same portion for the first Shabbat after the day commemorating the many disasters that have befallen Jewish people, Tisha B’Av. This Shabbat is also mainly known by the first and repeated word of the Haftarah from Isaiah chapter 40: Nachamu, meaning ‘Comfort’. Its Torah portion is always Va’etchanan, which includes two of the most well-known texts in the whole Torah. These are the repetition of the Ten Commandments in chapter 5, verses 6 – 18, and the Sh’ma, chapter 6, verses 4 – 9.

I want to focus on the valley between these twin peaks, the verses from chapter 5 verse 19 up to and including chapter 6, verse 3, and I will suggest a possible additional reason for why this Torah portion and its Haftarah are manacled together.

In the second version of the Decalogue, one of the significant differences from the ‘original’ version in Exodus is that we are told to “Keep (Shamor) the Shabbat”. There are fifteen verses between the ending of the tenth commandment and the opening word of the Sh’ma. Between the second and seventh of these verses, the root shin-mem-ayin, of which Sh’ma (‘Listen!’ or ‘Hear!’) is the best-known form, is used no less than eight times. In the following seven verses, the root shin-mem-reish is used three times. There is only one more verse immediately before the key affirmation of our people: ‘Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad’ (‘Listen Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is one’). In this verse, and only here, both verbs appear: ‘V’shamata Yisrael, v’shamarta la’asot asher yitav l’cha’ (‘You! Listen Israel, keep and do (the commandments) such that it goes well for you…”).

I hope you’re still with me, but let me recap. The dramatic scene of Moses’ address to the assembled people has just hit one of the heights as he told the Israelites of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, and read to them the words of the Ten Commandments. Now, the story continues with Moses using the same verb eight times in six sentences. Any Primary school teacher who did not insist that a pupil finds synonyms to avoid such repetition would be considered derelict in their duties nowadays! Yet, eight times, Moses is pictured referring to listening – the people listened, God listened, Moses listened, everyone listened. Then, the focus shifts as the dominant word becomes shamar, meaning to guard, keep, or attend. Keep the Torah, keep the commandments, but you can only keep them if you have first listened, listened, and listened again.

There are some scholars of ancient Hebrew who argue that two-letter roots give rise to related meanings in a variety of verbs when a third letter is added. What we have here could be one powerful example: the two letters - shin-mem - give us the Hebrew word for ‘name’. A name is a place-marker: we know a table because that word is the name given to it; we know a village or town because of its name; we know a person because of her or his name. Once something has a name, it has the chance to become familiar and important to us. To listen (Sh’ma) is to give the person to whom we are listening the respect of our time and attention. To keep or guard (Shamor) is to watch over someone or something, to give him, her, or it the respect of our time and attention. By doing either or both, we show that we value someone else.

What does anyone who needs comforting seek from those who are around them? Between the twin peaks of Va’etchanan might be the most important lesson of all: They need to be really listened to, and to have people pay them genuine attention.