Rabbi Batsheva Appel
We hear Shema Yisrael, and it resonates with the echoes of the first prayer we learn, but in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Ki Tavo, Moses and the levitical priests add a word to get the full attention of the people: “Silence! Hear, O Israel! Today you have become the people of the Lord your God [Deuteronomy 27:9]. Jeffrey Tigay, in his commentary to the Book of Deuteronomy, notes that “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…”
Not only is the call for silence unusual, but the word used here in the Hebrew, hahskayt, is unique to this place in the Hebrew Scriptures. What does the word mean? Rashi, a medieval French commentator, uses a very early Aramaic translation of the Torah to translate the word as “pay attention”. Sforno, an Italian commentator of the Renaissance period, translates the word as “imagine in your thought” theorizing that the second half of the word is like a word that means, “to draw, to imagine”. The Talmud suggests that there are two pieces to the word, hahs, meaning “hush”, and katayt, meaning “shatter”. We are to listen to words of Torah and then analyze them. Midrash Tanchuma, an early midrash to the Torah, also divides the word hahskayt into two pieces and translates the first word as “hush” and the second word as “form small groups and incline your hearts to words of Torah.” Then the Midrash suggests an alternate reading: “hush and shatter your hearts and souls to hear words of Torah”.
We are used to thinking of the Torah and the words of Torah as something that heals us, that helps us. A Midrash that suggests that we shatter our hearts and souls to hear words of Torah seems counter-intuitive. I would suggest that there are times that we have isolated ourselves from Torah, from community, from God, and this is exactly what we need to hear. At these moments, we will not allow the words of Torah to enter our souls and our hearts until we have broken through our isolation, in a sense, shattering it.
The Israelites at this moment are preparing to enter into a covenant with God. They need to focus, to give the matter their full attention. Sometimes that means being quiet to hear what is being said. Sometimes that means visualizing what we are hearing to integrate what we have heard into what we already know. Sometimes that means listening then analyzing what is being said, so we don’t misinterpret what we have learned. Sometimes that means shattering our isolation from God, from Torah and from each other, so that we remember.