To Listen With Intent

Dena Weiss

Parashat Ha'azinu

The word “ha’azinu” is a demand for attention. Moshe tells the heavens to listen to him, and the earth as well:

דברים לב:א

הַאֲזִינוּ הַשָּׁמַיִם וַאֲדַבֵּרָה וְתִשְׁמַע הָאָרֶץ אִמְרֵי פִי:


Devarim 32:1

Listen, heavens, and I will speak, and the earth shall hear the words of my mouth.


This brief verse gestures towards the many dynamics involved in listening and invites us to ask important questions about something we do so often: What does it mean to be a good listener? What is the right way to listen? How can we improve in our efforts to be fully present to one another in this way?

The Midrash Tanhuma acknowledges that Moshe’s demand that the whole world stop and listen to him here is quite a bold act:

מדרש תנחומא פרשת האזינו א

הַאֲזִינוּ הַשָּׁמַיִם וַאֲדַבֵּרָה. אַשְׁרֵי יְלוּד אִשָּׁה שֶׁאוֹמֵר לִמְלֶאכֶת הַשָּׁמַיִם כֵּן. כְּמֶלֶךְ שֶׁאוֹמֵר לַעֲבָדָיו, "הַאֲזִינוּ וְשִׁמְעוּ לִדְבָרַי!" כָּךְ הוּא אוֹמֵר לְשָׁמַיִם וָאָרֶץ, "שִׁתְקוּ עַד שֶׁיִּכְלוּ כָּל דְּבָרַי!"


Midrash Tanhuma Ha’azinu 1

Listen, heavens, and I will speak. Impressive is the human being1 who can say thus to the works of heaven. It is like a king who says to his servants, “Listen and hearken to my words!” So too [Moshe] said to the heaven and earth, “Be quiet until all of my words are done!”


According to Midrash Tanhuma, Moshe was commanding the heavens and earth like a king. Devarim Rabbah intensifies this image of Moshe’s power, by highlighting that Moshe’s instructions even contradict God’s own!

דברים רבה י:ב 

...כָּךְ בָּרָא הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא שָׁמַיִם וָאָרֶץ שֶׁיִּהְיוּ מְקַלְּסִים אוֹתוֹ. מִנַּיִן? שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: הַשָּׁמַיִם מְסַפְּרִים כְּבוֹד אֵל (תהלים יט:ב). כֵּיוָן שֶׁבָּא משֶׁה, שִׁתֵּק אוֹתָן. מִנַּיִן? שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: הַאֲזִינוּ הַשָּׁמַיִם.


Devarim Rabbah 10:2

...So the Holy Blessed One created the Heavens and the Earth so that they would praise Him. From where do we know this? As it says, The heavens tell of God’s glory (Tehillim 19:2). When Moshe came, he silenced them, as it says, Listen heavens.


On the surface, these midrashim teach about Moshe’s power, but in a deeper sense they are about what it takes to listen. First, Devarim Rabbah teaches the fundamental principle which is easy to learn and difficult to master that one can’t speak and listen at the same time. And furthermore, for the heavens, speaking represents their primary occupation. When Moshe instructs the Heavens to listen, he is effectively telling them that they need to stop doing whatever they usually do; they can’t both be proclaiming God’s glory and listening to what Moshe has to say. We too can’t carry on with what we are already doing and give our full attention to someone else at the same time.

Midrash Tanhuma challenges us to improve our listening even more. When Moshe commands the heavens and earth to listen to him it is “until all of my words are done!” The speaker not only determines that we need to stop what we are doing and give our undivided attention, but also claims that attention for an indefinite amount of time. Sometimes, even important conversations can wrap up neatly in a few minutes, but sometimes it takes a lot of time for people to express themselves fully and feel heard—and the listener may not interrupt. Not only should they not interrupt in order to disagree, they even need to hold back on offering insight or affirmation until the listening is done. A response may be appropriate or necessary, but responding is not listening. The listening is an end in and of itself.

While the demand to listen speaks to Moshe’s boldness and the importance of his words, the ability to be told to listen says something about the nature of the heavens and how they listen:

דברים רבה י:ד

דָּבָר אַחֵר, הַאֲזִינוּ הַשָּׁמַיִם. אָמַר רַבִּי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ דְּסִכְנִין: מִכָּאן אַתָּה לָמֵד שֶׁיֵּשׁ לַשָּׁמַיִם פֶּה וְלֵב וְאֹזֶן. פֶּה מִנַּיִן? דִּכְתִיב: הַשָּׁמַיִם מְסַפְּרִים כְּבוֹד אֵל (תהלים יט:ב). וְלֵב מִנַּיִן? דִּכְתִיב: וְהָהָר בֹּעֵר בָּאֵשׁ עַד לֵב הַשָּׁמַיִם (דברים ד:יא). וְאֹזֶן מִנָּלָן? דִּכְתִיב הַאֲזִינוּ.


Devarim Rabbah 10:4

Listen heavens. R. Yehoshua of Sikhnin said: From here you learn that the heavens have a mouth, heart, and ear. From where do we know [that they have] a mouth? As it is written: The heavens tell of God’s glory (Tehillim 19:2). And from where do we know [that they have] a heart? As it is written—And the mountain was alight with fire up to the heart of the heavens (Devarim 4:11). And from where do we know [that they have] an ear? As it is written: Listen heavens.


R. Yeshoshua’s taxonomy of the senses of the heavens encourages us to examine our own senses and how we use them. The heavens have the capacity to speak and they have the capacity to understand, but those things are quite distinct from their capacity to hear. We as humans are also only truly listening when we differentiate clearly between these different modes. We learned from Devarim Rabbah earlier the slightly more intuitive lesson that one cannot speak and listen at the same time, that the mouth and the ear do not operate simultaneously. But R. Yehoshua teaches us something more delicate and difficult: that the heart, the seat of the intellect according to the Torah, does not operate when we are listening. When someone says something personally difficult or challenging to us, we should not be trying to logically understand or rationally evaluate what we are hearing when we are listening. We should be trying to empathize and hear someone else’s perspective rather than be thinking our own thoughts and constructing our own narratives. Listening done the right way is hard and it is humbling.

The significance of listening also manifests itself in halakhic sources, primarily in the idea of shomei’a ke’oneh, that active listening is considered equivalent to responding, to having spoken oneself. The source of this principle comes from the different ways to recite the verses of Hallel discussed in Massekhet Sukkah:

תלמוד בבלי סוכה לח:

אמר רבא: הלכתא גבירתא איכא למשמע ממנהגא דהלילא. "הוא אומר הללויה והן אומרים הללויה" - מכאן שמצוה לענות הללויה… "הוא אומר ברוך הבא והן אומרים בשם ה'" (תהלים קיח:כו) - מכאן לשומע כעונה…


Talmud Bavli Sukkah 38b

Rava said: We can learn great halakhah from the customs of Hallel. “He says Halleluyah and they say Halleluyah”—from here [we know] that it is a mitzvah to respond Halleluyah… “He says Blessed be who comes and they say in the name of God” (Tehillim 118:26)—from here [we know] that one who listens is like one who responds (shomei’a ke’oneh)


Generally, saying half-verses particularly in official or ritual contexts is frowned upon.2 Rava notices that there appears to be an exception to this practice in Hallel, where it is traditional and accepted for the leader to recite one half of the verse and the second half of the verse is recited by the congregation. Rava solves this implicit issue with his understanding that shomei’a ke’oneh is the principle enabling these half-verses to be recited. When the congregation listens to the leader, they are credited as if they are saying the words themselves. Therefore, when they complete the verse they are not only considered to be reciting the half they said out loud, but also the half that was said first by the leader. The congregants are saying the complete verse, just in two different modes—the first half they recite by listening and the second half they recite by speaking aloud.

Rashi’s explanation of this principle extends it to the specific case of a person who is not able to respond themselves:

רש"י על סוכה לח:

הוא אומר ברוך הבא והם אומרים בשם ה'. וברוך הבא סומכין עליו ואין עונין לא התיבות עצמן ולא הללויה. מכאן נלמד לשאינו יודע לא לקרות ולא לענות - אם שמע וכיון לבו לשמוע אף על פי שלא ענה יצא. וכן למתפללין בצבור ושליח צבור אומר קדיש או יהא שמיה רבא, ישתקו בתפלתן וישמעו בכוונה, והרי הן כעונין. וכשיגמור הקדושה יחזרו לתפלתן… 


Rashi to Sukkah 38b

He says Blessed be who comes and they say in the name of God. And for the phrase Blessed be who comes, they rely on [the leader] and they respond with neither the words themselves or Hallelujah. From here [we can extrapolate] to one who does not know how to read or to recite—if he heard and he intended to hear, even though he did not respond he has fulfilled his obligation. And similarly those who are praying with a minyan and the prayer leader says kedushah3 or yehei shemei rabbah (may God’s great name be blessed), they should be silent during their own [Amidah] prayer and listen with intent and then they will be considered as if they responded. And when [the leader] finishes the holy sections they can return to their own prayers...


Rashi’s comments explain that the principle of “listening is equivalent to responding” is not restricted to the case of Hallel. It is at work whenever someone discharges a prayer obligation on behalf of someone else. Because listening with intent is equivalent to recitation, a person who does not have the literacy or familiarity with which to recite their own prayers can choose to listen with intent and be credited with having spoken the words that they only hear.

Then Rashi extends the principle even further. After accommodating one who doesn’t have the skill to read, he then includes someone who doesn’t have the availability to respond. This latter person has the ability to pray, but because they are in the middle of a different part of the prayers than the rest of the congregation, it is impermissible for them to interrupt their personal prayers in order to respond along with the community. Rashi makes a recommendation in the latter case which enables this individual to participate in the congregational responses—they can listen with intent and get credit for responding, without having to interrupt their own personal prayer!

While this seems like the perfect solution for latecomers or slow daveners, Tosafot find Rashi’s implementation of shomei’a ke’oneh in the second case to be quite problematic.

תוספות על סוכה לח:

שמע ולא ענה יצא… וקשה מהא דאמרינן פרק מי שמתו (ברכות כא:) אם יכול להתחיל ולגמור עד שלא יגיע שליח צבור לקדושה יתפלל ואם לאו לא יתפלל… ולמה לן כולי האי?! יתפלל כדרכו ולכשיגיע שם ישתוק! אלא ודאי אם היה שותק היתה שמיעתו הפסקת תפלתו…


Tosafot to Sukkah 38b

If he heard even if he did not respond he fulfills his obligation… [Rashi’s interpretation] is difficult to accept based on what the Rabbis say in Massekhet Berakhot (21b): If he could begin [his personal prayer] and finish it before the prayer leader gets to Kedushah he should pray and if not, he should not pray… [If Rashi is correct] then why do we need all of this?! Let him pray at his own pace and then when [the prayer leader] gets [to Kedushah] he can just be quiet! Rather it must be that if he were to be quiet, his listening would be considered an interruption of his prayer…


Rashi presents a brilliant solution for the individual who is out of sync with the communal prayers: pray at your own pace and just be silent for the congregational responses. It’s a win-win: silence is not considered interrupting one’s own prayer and if the person listens with intent, then they get “credit” for participating with the congregation. Yet, Tosafot state strongly that this strategy is a bit too clever and that a person cannot have it both ways. If you are listening with enough intent for it to be equivalent to speaking yourself then, just as actual speech is considered an interruption, so too this type of deliberate listening would be considered a prohibited type of response.

Rashi and Tosafot are having a technical debate about prayer responses, but this debate also illuminates another element of the significance of listening. When Rava says that listening is “like” responding, Rashi reads this statement in a loose way—that intentional listening is considered to be equivalent to speaking in that one gets the credit “as if” they themselves spoke. One is not, of course, technically speaking! So a person can listen and have the listening be considered speech, but since a person is not speaking in the traditional sense no interruption to one’s own prayers is made. On Tosafot’s reading, however, Rava’s statement is much more powerful and concrete. According to the Tosafot, active and intentional listening is not only theoretically equivalent to speech, it is actually a type of speaking. If one were to stop and pay attention with the fullness that Rava’s principle demands that person would definitely be interrupting their own prayers!

Rashi and Tosafot’s argument reflect different views on what it means to listen with intent. For Rashi, to have intent means to want the listening to accomplish a certain goal. The listener intends to fulfill their obligation and therefore they do. Rashi thinks that it is therefore sufficient for a person to demonstrate intentive listening by merely pausing. According to Tosafot, however, listening with intent is an immersive activity. If a person is truly listening then that is by definition an interruption of what they were doing before. Listening requires the whole of one’s attention and nothing else can be accomplished at the same time. According to Tosafot, only this type of listening is considered responding. You are saying something with your presence and the force of your attention, more than you are saying with your words.

The type of listening that Tosafot assumes requires a lot of emotional investment, it requires that we step out of ourselves and into the experience of another person. This kind of listening must be undivided, you must remain undistracted by your own mouth or even by your own mind. Listening is not created by the vacuum of not doing something else; listening is not passive. Not only do you not interrupt the speaker by talking over them, but you allow them to deeply interrupt you. This listening creates space for a person to really say what they need to, which they cannot when they are concerned that they won’t be able to finish their thought or when they feel that you are judging them. Active listening is not nodding our head, asking follow-up questions, or giving affirmations. In fact, truly active listening allows for none of those things because true listening requires empathy, not sympathy. It means you identify so much with the person who is speaking that it is as if you are speaking yourself.

Before we are told to love God with all of our mind, with all of our soul, and with all of our might we are told, simply, to listen: Shema Yisrael.4 We are told to listen not because we need to hear the information that God is One, but because we need to be one with Him. We need to listen, to be immersed in the fact that God is one. Listening itself is the model for living the lives of devotion, attention, and sensitivity that we are called to lead. It is the template for expressing and living a life of full presence and true empathy.

1 Lit. “one born of woman.”

2 Talmud Bavli Megillah 22a.

3 The word Rashi uses here is Kaddish. It seems from context, however, that the next phrase refers to the prayer we refer to as Kaddish since it includes the line “yehei shemei rabbah mevorakh, may God’s great name be blessed” and therefore what Rashi calls Kaddish is likely the prayer we refer to as Kedushah. See Massekhet Soferim 10:6.

4 Devarim 6:4-9.