If you will go in My decrees and keep My Mitzvos and perform them; then I will provide rains in their time, and the land will give its produce and the tree of the field will give its fruit. (Vayikra 26:3)
If you will go in My decrees…If you follow My decrees by engaging in intensive Torah study, with the intention that such study will lead you to observe … (Rashi)
But if you do not listen to Me and do not perform all these commandments and if you despise My statutes and reject My ordinances, not performing any of My Commandments, thereby breaking My covenant then I too, will do the same to you; …Your enemies will rule over you; you will flee, but no one will be pursuing you. And if, during these, you will not listen to Me, I will add another seven punishments for your sins: (Vayikra 26:14-18)
We see two opposite ends of the spectrum here. The prospect of inviting abundant blessing or the terrifying possibility of bringing curse. The language of that action that opens the door for a world of good is, “Im Bechukasi Telechu – If you will go in My decrees…” Rashi says that means to toil in the learning of Torah. How do those words imply toiling in Torah? The polar opposite of that which invites all the horrors is expressed as, “But if you will not listen to me…”. We learn an important point from this seeming disparity of language.
What is the most important word in the Torah? True, all words are important! However, if you could highlight one word that is shouted the loudest and with the greatest frequency, which word would it be? You can only imagine that if this word is so important it must be the cure for many ills, personal and societal. If it’s hard to conjure up the answer it’s probably because the meaning has become obscured or it remains under-understood. Let’s look together.
A Jew was riding on a train traversing the Siberian tundra. Seated next to him was a soldier of the Czar quietly boiling and seething with deep hatred toward the Jew. In one moment he let loose his anger to the Jew who, unaware of the danger, was staring into one of his holy books when he barked, “What makes you people so smart?”
The Jew was startled. He realized his life was at risk and he had better give the correct answer. Without hesitation, with help from heaven, he responded with perfect calm, one word -“Herring!” “That little bony fish!?” the soldier sternly inquired, “Do you have any?” The Jew acknowledged that he had a few pieces remaining which the soldier demanded with authority should be handed over to him.
Taking a big risk, the Jew refused and insisted he be compensated 20 Rubles for the now desirous herring. The soldier hurriedly threw the money at him and took hold of the prize. In a one gulp, like a hungry bear, he swallowed the whole lot of them. After wiping his mouth brutishly he turned to the Jew, who had calmly returned to his books, and protested, “20 Rubles for those few pieces of fish?! Where we are going to in Moscow I can get five times that amount for the same price!” At that point the Jew turned to him with a full face and declared, “You see, it’s starting to work already!”
It’s not just a joke. Perhaps the secret is in something like herring- hearing. What makes you people so smart? Hearing! Hear O’ Israel… That statement is the clearest expression of the mission of the Jewish People, singularly and collectively! Not only is it the declaration at each door -post of the Jewish home or the continuous cry of loyal Jewish tongues twice daily for thousands of years even while being led to their death. It’s the cry of the universe!
Isn’t that what wives are telling husbands, often with desperation? How often do we hear these words, “He doesn’t listen to me!” It’s what parents are telling children and what children are telling parents. SHEMMAA! Listen! It’s what the teacher and student hope from each other for the relationship to succeed. Most importantly it’s what THE ALMIGHTY shouts to His people, “SHEMA Yisrael” Listen Israel… It’s also what we request in prayer daily, “Shema koleinu- HASHEM ELOCHEINU…Hear our voices HASHEM our G-d!
Here’s a concept I’ve shared with my children at bedtime for years and recently I saw that the Vilna Gaon (Mishlei 4:1) defines the word SHEMA in the same three ways. Perhaps my approach is more playful but as I recently discovered, not less true. The word “SHEMA” with its three letters onomatopoetically sounds out three ideas that together may help us get our arms around that giant of a word- “SHEMA”
SHHH- Listen! Quiet down for a moment! Remove all external distractions. Focus undisturbed! (Not so easy!) MMMM- Understand! Listen empathically. Merge into another’s world. Hear well what’s being said. Let the message be absorbed gently and thoughtfully into your system. Finally- AHHHH- Accept! Stop resisting what you know to be true in your heart of hearts! Surrender to an idea that is bigger than you! Be ready to act upon and live up to it. If only the word- “SHEMA” would be heard, understood, and accepted properly and exercised practically. What a different world and what a different life it would be.
When we pray we are talking to HASHEM but when we learn Torah we are listening to, hearing, and accepting HASHEM. Learning Torah as one who is open to accept, embrace and even revel in the the enormous opportunity to imbibe the Ratzon HASHEM, the desire of the Creator, is to already be going in HIS while way. However, by taking the learning of Torah as a casual option, an academic exercise, or as an awful burden is deserving of the description, “and if you will not listen to ME!” That’s a devastating error.