The more I am exposed to other cultures, the more I am convinced that we Jews are a group peculiarly partial to words. Non-Jewish friends have sometimes confessed a certain discomfort in the presence of Jewish families— ok, with my Jewish family — and the apparent constant bickering that prevents anyone of a more timid disposition to get in a word edgewise. To us it is just normal discussion.
For a book so much about speaking, the first chapters of Devarim (“Words”) emphasise the need to listen. Commentators see the commandment to be impartial in judgment, quoted above, as perhaps the most difficult. In the Talmud, judges are told to imagine as “if a sword were hanging at their necks and as if hell were open at their feet”. To properly hear someone is difficult — especially when lots of words are being uttered all the time.
A connection can be made between the commandment and another incident recalled in the sidrah. Retelling the story of the 12 spies, Moses here lays full blame on the people, rather than the spies who gave the report, for the failure to take up God’s mission to conquer the land.
Commentator Nechama Leibowitz brilliantly notes how hearing properly affects our ability to be morally responsible. “Human beings are put to the test by God at every moment of their existence,” she observes, “The ears hear and the heart is seduced… The listener has a choice of turning a deaf ear to evil and misleading words.” Indeed, she is right. Perhaps the most difficult thing in the world when someone is speaking is to hear what they are saying.
Rabbi Nancy Morris