Sh’ma – On the Matter of Hearing

by Elliot Holin (Dresher, PA)

When I was a child, I loved hearing the phrase “Hero Israel” because it brought to mind such wonderful and powerful images of men riding horses across the desert, swords held high, whooping with delight, their robes billowing in the wind. I admit that my vocabulary was more limited then, but I am sure that the pictures in my mind were vivid. In time, my list of heroes expanded from Moses to Abraham, but I don’t think Aaron ever made it. He wasn’t even on the ‘B’ list, though I’m guessing that David might have been because the Goliath story was pretty cool.

You can imagine my stunned disbelief when adults got around to telling me it wasn’t “Hero Israel,” it was “Here, O Israel.” That called for a new way to frame the image, and so I quickly decided that it was a call to being somewhere, but where, exactly? Where is “here”? I understood it when the words were recited at our synagogue, but I also knew that friends of mine worshiped at other synagogues, so could “here” be “everywhere”? Yes! Now I understood what my parents and other adults meant when they told me that God was everywhere! Here, too, and there, as well! That certainly made the phrase that people said and sang with such fervor all the more personal. I mean, heroes from a distant past were one thing, but to say that God is “here” made the possibility of relationship with a God who cares so much to be “here” for me pretty dramatic and meaningful.

But then (here we go again), people told me that the word isn’t “Here,” it’s “Hear.” That was pretty deflating. I mean, I went from heroes, to God being “here,” to something that my parents told me I didn’t do very well. All of a sudden a word that had meaning suddenly sounded, well, parental and disapproving. “You’re not paying attention! Do you hear what I’m saying! Why do I have to repeat things three times?”

When I calmed down, I wondered what it was that I was supposed to hear. The sounds of the world around me? The words of Torah or prayers speaking to me? God addressing me? How would I know if what I was hearing was important? If it was, what was I supposed to do?

“Now hear this! Now hear this!” Like the sound of a submarine dive alarm blaring throughout my adolescence whenever girls entered a room, scaring me to death with their poise and grace, and rendering me mute most of the time that I was around them, all that I really heard was the sound of my heartbeat, pounding me into submission through embarrassment. I had no vocabulary around those giggling, pretty female forms, and so I entered a new phase of my life.

Later, when things sorted themselves out – by which I mean that my silence was often interpreted as introspection, an assumption that worked so totally to my advantage that if ever proof of a miracle was needed, well there you had it: a bull’s eye scored by a blind man shooting blanks –  I came to understand over time the difference between just hearing and really listening. It wasn’t a dramatic moment that brought me to that realization; it was more like years spent connecting the dots.

But here’s the interesting thing: in the midst of those journeys, I always considered myself to be one of the children of Israel, and that always made me feel special. I heard something right for me pretty early on. Then I listened to the wisdom of our sages throughout the ages, and my hearing got better.

Elliot Holin, a native of San Francisco, is the founding  rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in Elkins Park, PA. He is married with three sons, enjoys people, world travel, photography, and the San Francisco Giants and 49ers.


Filed under American Jewry, Jewish identity

3 responses to “Sh’ma – On the Matter of Hearing

  1. What a wonderful, delightful, thoughtful piece. I thoroughly enjoyed it while realizing its import. Thank you.

  2. Thank you for your multi-layered interpretation of Sh’ma! I read it aloud so that I could hear your words and discern their beauty.

  3. This is a fabulous piece! I’m definitely going to share it with my Rabbis and several others!

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