[My photo in Carpentaria, California overlooking the Pacific – morning]
This summer Barbara and I rented a house for a week in Carpentaria, California. The house was at the top of the mountain over-looking the Pacific. I was moved not only by the glorious view but by the solitude of the site. There were no homes nearby and no traffic. Avocado and orange tree groves spread out in every direction. The serene stillness of the silence was punctuated only occasionally by the horns and bells of a train as it moved through the town that connected Los Angeles and Santa Barbara.
I’ve always had sensitive ears. I cringe at loud cacophony. My tastes in music are the classics and jazz. I prefer the mellifluous to the abrasive.
Sitting outside each morning before others awoke, I listened to the sound of my breathing, reassuring myself about who I am, from whence I’ve come, and Who is my Creator.
I thank my late colleague, Rabbi Levi Meir, for sharing with me many years ago his translation of an essay by Dr. Adolf Altmann, the late Chief Rabbi of the town of Trier, Germany in 1928, on the significance of the sense of hearing.
Rabbi Altmann concluded that the command “Sh’ma Yisrael – Listen, O Israel” which appears in this week’s Torah portion Va-etchanan, is more than a call for attention. He explained that something deeper occurs when we proclaim the supreme watchword of Jewish faith.
Rabbi Altmann noted that the command “Sh’ma!” is an appeal to one of the senses, that the keenest perception of all embraces thought and the sensory experience of hearing. He said that hearing is the only sense through which God revealed It’s divinity to the Israelites directly.
Why hearing? Why not touch, sight, taste, or smell? Altmann wrote that among the five senses the tonal stands nearest to the purely spiritual reflecting tradition’s understanding of hearing as the best medium of sensory revelation, the most easily amplified into the infinite. Mozart understood as well that hearing is the means through which sense and spirit touch and the corporeal and incorporeal are joined.
Jewish mystics speak of the religious seeker’s goal of hitbodedut (communion with God), of reaching outward and inward to that moment of meeting when God hears the stirring of the soul reaching out and we hear God’s voice as if, per Heschel, reaching out to us. The prophet Elijah experienced the divine voice as a kol d’mama daka, a soft murmuring sound (1 Kings 19:12), like a baby’s breath, or like air passing quietly through the lips. In that moment of God-hearing, Israel is aware of divine unity.
Judaism understands that each mitzvah (commandment) is a living transference of God’s voice that once sounded to Israel at Sinai. Every word and letter in Torah is the encasing vessel of God’s holy sparks, flashes of light rediscovered as they are heard in the ears of every generation.
Rabbi Leo Baeck taught that in encountering the God of Israel, the Jew discovers the mystery and the commandment. Thus, the mitzvot are the spiritual and ethical links when the metaphysical and the moral join.
Rabbi Altmann wrote:
“Through the silent walls of hard prison cells hear the sighs, Israel; out of the lonely huts of deserted widows and orphans, from the bed of pain of the sick and suffering, from the quietly restrained anguish of the rejected and disenfranchised; from the mute looks of the timid and sorrow-laden, from the pale lips of the starving and needy, you, Jew, shall hear the cries of pain, without their having to be emitted. The cry of the suffering is the cry of God, which emanates from them to you. As the Psalmist lets God speak: ‘With the oppressed, I am one in suffering.’ (Psalm 91:15)”
We say the Sh’ma and understand its spiritual power and ethical obligation to become witnesses to God in the world. It isn’t an accident that the two enlarged letters of the Sh’ma (the ayin and daled) spell “witness.”
The silence I experienced on a Carpentaria mountain; the murmuring sound in every life-breath; the God-filled words of Torah; the screams of human suffering – all command our attention as if we are standing with our people at Mount Sinai.