Parshat Va’Etchanan: Love is Listening

The Organs of Love

Sefer Yetzirah deals extensively with the importance of listening. It even declares that the three “organs of love” are the heart and the two ears (Sefer Yetzirah 6:8). This means that even though love can and should be expressed through speech, the highest level of love is expressed through listening. This particular truth is oft overlooked in relationships.

Speech, for some reason, is considered the act of giving, whereas listening is thought of as receiving. Thus, a man who loves his wife and wishes to give to her, speaks to her. Sometimes this creates a situation in which each partner is waiting anxiously for the other to finish speaking so that he can have his turn to speak and “bestow” upon the other.

In fact, the opposite is true. Listening is the absolute sign of love, and an inability to listen is a sign (and a cause) of a lack of true love. When we love someone, we care about her and are interested to hear what she has to say, so we are able and want to listen to her.

Listening is not a passive activity. It is an art and it entails great effort. There are infinitely many degrees and methods of listening. I remember a conversation I once had with a newly married student who told me, perplexed, that he didn’t understand what his wife wanted from him. She claimed that he didn’t listen to her, but he felt that all he did was listen to her – every evening she would speak for hours and he would listen. As our conversation progressed it became clear that the young man was under the impression that it was enough simply to hear the words that came out of his wife’s mouth, whereas she sought true listening.

Couple Talking Over CoffeeWhat constitutes true listening? Simply put: being present. The quality of listening depends on the degree to which the listener is present. When listening, a person must disconnect himself from all of his preoccupations and thoughts and make himself fully available to the other. True listening enables the person speaking to overcome his existential loneliness, and gives him the feeling that he is not alone with his feelings and life journey. When we listen and allow the words we hear to penetrate us deeply, we make space for the other and receive him. This is the meaning of love.

In the Jewish wedding ceremony, the man is the one who gives and speaks. Given the above understanding of the meaning and importance of listening, we see that it is the woman who has the chosen role – hearing her groom’s words and accepting the ring he gives her signify that she receives and accepts him. The Hebrew word for bride, “kallah” (כלה) is connected to the word “hachalah” (הכלה), accepting and making space, for it is the bride who, by accepting her groom, creates the space for the couple to come together.

At its source, listening is a G-dly attribute. In the high holiday prayer service we say “G-d who is lofty and exalted, he understands and hears…and listens.” In reality, we often do not receive an answer to our prayers, but even when the answer is negative, the belief that G-d is constantly present and attentive to our prayers enables us to feel his love for us always.

Shema Yisrael

In our Parsha Jews are called upon to do is listen: “Listen Israel, Hashem is our G-d, Hashem is One” Devarim 6:4). Through listening, we arrive at love: “And you shall love Hashem your G-d with all your heart and all your soul and all your possessions” (Ibid 5). In these two pesukim we find the organs of love that the Sefer Yetzirah mentioned – the ears and the heart.

It is customary to cover one’s eyes while reciting the “Shema.” The explanation for this can be understood through a lesson we learn from The Little Prince: “What is essential is in invisible to the eye.” Closing one’s eyes enables one to focus deeply, and when one truly listens, one sees with the heart.

Love and Obligation

That which we are commanded to hear in “Hear O Israel” is “While residing at home and while traveling on the way, when you lie down and when you rise” (Devarim 6:7). In other words, the experience is the same in every place: G-d is One. This experience is deeper than merely the acknowledgment that are not two gods, it is the realization that “there is nothing besides Him” (Devarim 4:35) and that “there is no place void of Him” (Tikunei Zohar 122b).

G-d is present in everything, and the one G-d is the source for all unity in the world, which is the basis of love. When Man experiences this unity in all places, he not only feels close to G-d, he also understands that he too is part of the One, part of the unity. The gematria (numerical value) of the word “one” (Echad- אחד) and the word “love” (ahava – אהבה) is the same – 13. Love means becoming one with another, just like in the archetypal story in the Garden of Eden, “And he shall cleave to his wife, and they will be one flesh” (Bereshit 2:24).

Happy senior coupleIn the song “My Freedom,” Chava Alberstien sings about a chained man mourning his lost freedom. Towards the end of the song we learn that it is the bonds of love which hold him. True love is binding, it requires commitment. It requires the keeping of promises, even when one lacks the desire to keep them. I was recently at a wedding where the rabbi read the Ketubah – a legal document which spells out the groom’s obligations to his bride – to the tune of the Song of Songs. Commitment is the foundation of love.

The connection between love and commitment also comes up in the “Shema.” Alongside the declaration that “Hashem is One” we say “Hashem is our G-d.”

Someone once told me that she did not understand why it is important to keep halacha (Jewish law), for she knows that G-d will love her anyway. I responded that while it is true that G-d’s love is unconditional, it is not only G-d’s love for us which matters, but also our love for G-d.

One could see commitment as a forfeiture of personal freedom, but one could also see a lack of commitment as an expression of disconnectedness and isolation.

The power of love is in the feeling that the other is not a stranger to me, but becomes “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” (Bereshit 2:23), and together we become “one flesh” (Ibid 24). The strength of our connection to G-d stems from the acknowledgment that we are created in His image, that He is not strange or external to us. Attaching ourselves to G-d does not blur our individual identity, it sharpens it, and therein lies the deep connection between “Hashem is our G-d” and “Hashem is One.”

Rav Yaakov Nagen
Yakov Nagen (Genack) is a Rom at the Hesder Yeshiva of Otniel and a member of “Beit Hillel”.

This article was translated from the Hebrew by Netzach Sapir


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