Ki Tavo

Communicating a message

Before we can hear
Before we can truly hear
There must be silence

Deuteronomy 27:9 – Moses and the levitical priests spoke to all Israel, saying: Silence! Hear, O Israel! Today you have become the people of the Eternal your God.

Shema Yisrael – Hear, O Israel! These familiar words are found in the verse from Ki Tavo, but are preceded by a less familiar word. In Hebrew it’s haskeit, translated as “Silence!”

The JPS Commentary on Deuteronomy says, “This is the first time that the appeal to hear is preceded by a call for silence. Absolute concentration is required at the awesome moment when Israel becomes the people of God and in order for everyone to be prepared for the solemn promises and warnings they are about to hear

As URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs teaches in this week’s On The Other Hand podcast, this is the only time in the entire Hebrew Bible where the word haskeit appears. As a result, we have no way to compare its usage in different places to better understand what it means in this context.

Rabbi Jacobs says the word has “something to do with silence, or be still.” Other sources suggest “pay attention” or “mind you.” This is hardly an exhaustive list, but all of these point toward the theme of this week’s haiku.

Going beyond the context in Torah, in which the Israelites become “the people of God”, there is a more contemporary lesson in the phrase “haskeit u’shema” – be silent and hear. Perhaps it is a failure to begin with silence that prevents us from hearing what others are saying. Particularly those people with whom we disagree or whose experiences are different from ours.

That silence might require us to put aside, for a moment, what we have already decided is the “reality” of a situation or the “truth” about an issue. Such a silence might provide the open mind required to fully consider the opinions of others.

Whatever the context – a political discussion, a Torah study class, or even a Temple Board meeting – silence may be an important first step toward hearing what others have to say.


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