Ernesto Sirolli is an Italian aid worker. In a Ted talk, which is viewable online,*1* he tells the story of his first project in Africa, in the 1970’s. He was part of a group of Italians who decided to teach Zambian people how to grow food. So they went to Southern Zambia to a beautiful, fertile valley that led down into the Zambesi River, and they brought a bunch of Italian seeds, intending to teach the locals how to grow tomatoes and zucchini and so on.
The locals, of course, had absolutely no interest in doing that, so the Italians paid them to come and work. Sometimes they showed up. The Italians were amazed that, in such a fertile valley, there was no agriculture.
Instead of asking the Zambesi about it, the Italians said “Thank God we are here to save the Zambian people from starvation.”
Everything grew beautifully – better than in Italy, in fact. “Look how easy agriculture is,” they told the Zambians.
One night, when the tomatoes were big and ripe, two hundred hippos came up out of the river and ate every last vegetable that they had planted.
The Italians said to the Zambians: “My God! The hippos!”
And the Zambians said: “Yes. That’s why we have no agriculture here.”
“Why didn’t you tell us?”
“You never asked.”
Sometimes, it pays to listen.
It is the last day of Moses’ life, and he knows it. The Israelites are assembled before him in the Plains of Moab on the Eastern Side of the Jordan River. This is the next generation, the children of those who had left slavery in Egypt. They have all been born in the wilderness.
Now, they are poised to enter the land of Israel. Moses, knowing the end is near, has been giving a series of speeches to the people. He has reviewed the history of the Exodus. He has presented the laws, including those that will be applicable once they enter the Promised Land. And now, in this morning’s Parshah, he pronounces a series of blessings and curses which will befall them depending on how they uphold the terms of the covenant with God.
Moses turns to the people and says:
Hasket ush’ma yisrael…
“Silence! Hear, O Israel!”*2*
This theme of listening has been a recurring one throughout the Book of Deuteronomy. Moses tells the people many to listen times. Our most famous prayer, the Shema, is from the Book of Deuteronomy. So it is not unusual that Moses tells the people to listen. What is unusual is that he tells them to shut up first. Hasket ush’ma. “Silence, and listen…” It is the only time in the entire Bible that the word hasket appears. When a word appears only once like this, scholars call it a hapax legomenon. As the medieval Rabbi and linguist Ibn Ezra comments, “its explanation is according to its context, for it has no parallels [in Scripture].”*3*
We are left with a question: If the idea of listening is so prevalent in Deuteronomy, why, on this single occasion, does Moses feel he needs to first tell the Israelites to be quiet? To answer that, let’s look at what he tells them to listen to this time:
hayom hazeh nih’yeta l’am ladonai elohekha
“Today you have become the people of the Lord your God.
Is this true? Is this day, at the end of the fortieth year of the Israelites’ wanderings, the day that they finally become God’s people? Didn’t that already happen a long time ago – at the time of the Exodus or at Mt. Sinai?
The great medieval commentator Rashi explains Moses’ instructions as follows: “You should consider every day as the day on which you entered into a covenant with [God].”*4*
Moses is not speaking just to the Israelites born in the wilderness. He speaks to all of us. He challenges all of us to treat “today” as the day on which we enter into a covenant with God.
Perhaps that explains why he tells the people to be quiet before he tells them to listen. Back at Sinai, they did not need to be told to shut up. There was a cacophonous sound and light show that overwhelmed the senses – earthquakes, thunder, lightning, fire, smoke, the sound of the shofar. Believe me, they were paying attention.
Forty years later, in Deuteronomy, there is no miraculous revelation by God. There are only words. In order to listen, to really listen, to what Moses is saying, the people must first stop talking. Only then can they, and we, open ourselves up to Torah and become the people of God.
“Shut up and listen!” he says. If we want to be a people of God, we have to stop making noise. We have to stop projecting ourselves and our egos out into the world.
In a world that is full of the noise of our own making, this is an important reminder. We tend to spend a lot more time talking than listening. When we do that, when we shut ourselves off from what the other has to say, we put up barriers. It is impossible to be in a relationship with someone to whom we do not listen.
I did a search online on the expression “Shut Up and Listen.” There were articles that advocated this approach for salespeople. We can be much more effective when we pause to listen to the customer say what the customer actually wants instead of telling the customer what he or she wants. Makes sense.
A self help column spoke about the importance of listening to criticism from other people. Rather than arguing back, it advocated simply saying “thank you,” and trying to really understand the critique. That is an important strategy that can help us learn about ourselves. Also makes sense.
And I found the story of the Italian aid worker in Zambia that I told earlier. The reason that more than one trillion dollars of Western aid money in Africa has done far more harm than good over the past fifty years is that most well-intentioned do-gooders don’t stop to ask people what they actually need. They would do well to shut up and listen.
While all of this may be true, that being quiet and listening may help us improve our sales numbers, or better ourselves, or help impoverished societies, Moses is getting at something deeper. He teaches us that the secret of being in an authentic relationship with another, whether it is a relationship with another human being, or a relationship with God, lies in our ability to shut up and listen.
Silence is more than just the absence of words. To be silent, we have to let go of our defense mechanisms. We have to stop acting as if “the world was created for me” and start acting like “I am but dust and ashes.” When we force down our ego, we create an open space that can be filled by another.
To be in a true relationship is to be in a covenantal relationship, which carries obligations.
The French Jewish philosopher Emanuel Levinas said that we encounter God when we truly look into another person’s face. Our self falls away and there is only the commanding Presence of the Other. Being in authentic relationship with another person is wrapped up with being in authentic relationship with God.
While there are many aspects of silence, it does come down to words. Words are our primary tools for projecting ourselves into the world. What if we only had a limited number of words that we could use each day?
The American poet Jeffrey McDaniel ponders this in his poem, The Quiet World.*5*
In an effort to get people to look
into each other’s eyes more,
and also to appease the mutes,
the government has decided
to allot each person exactly one hundred
and sixty-seven words, per day.
When the phone rings, I put it to my ear
without saying hello. In the restaurant
I point at chicken noodle soup.
I am adjusting well to the new way.
Late at night, I call my long distance lover,
proudly say I only used fifty-nine today.
I saved the rest for you.
When she doesn’t respond,
I know she’s used up all her words,
so I slowly whisper I love you
thirty-two and a third times.
After that, we just sit on the line
and listen to each other breathe.
Just imagine what it would be like.
*3*Ibn Ezra on Deut. 27:9
*4*Rashi on Deut. 27:9
*5*Listen to author read the poem at: https://myspace.com/jeffreymcdaniel/music/album/the-forgiveness-parade-5886367