Na’aseh ve’nishma: On being hearing impaired

Listening is more complex. It is internal – requiring full concentration to deeply absorb and integrate the words being said.

‘SHAVUOT (PENTECOST),’ by German painter Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, 1880 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
‘SHAVUOT (PENTECOST),’ by German painter Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, 1880
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Na’aseh ve’nishma is one of the best-known phrases related to the Shavuot holiday. Standing at Sinai we declared, “Na’aseh, we will do” and nishmah, from the word shema, “we will hear.”
More recently, the term “shema” has been understood differently. It is not to hear as much as it is to listen as there is a difference between the two. Hearing is external, superficial and yes, simple; all one does is take in the physical sounds.

Listening is more complex. It is internal – requiring full concentration to deeply absorb and integrate the words being said.
The challenge to understand shema as “listen” rather than “hear” is one that I have often shared over the years. In this process I didn’t pay much attention to shema as hearing. I viewed it as a natural phenomenon, a mundane activity that requires little or no effort.
No more. Things for me have now changed. I’ve come to recognize that the gift of hearing is not a given. It’s not simple.
It all started when I boarded a plane in London a few years ago. My hearing was then perfect. When landing in New York, I noticed that my hearing in my left ear had diminished. By the time I received ENT help, I was told an infection had developed and nothing could be done. So far, all of the hearing aids I have tried have not helped.
I am not alone. Loss of hearing is now commonplace. Nearly 25% of those aged 65 to 74 and 50% of those 75 and older are hearing impaired.
At the onset, I made light of my problem. Once, my wife Toby shared with me that there was an “ugly” woman in shul. I had never heard Toby use that word about anyone, and questioned her. She responded: I didn’t say she’s “ugly,” I said she’s “lovely.”
Most recently, while in Israel, the Yerushalayim basketball team beat Maccabi Tel Aviv. No small feat. At the end of the game, the stands erupted with the song “Mashiach Mashiach, ay yay yay.” I turned to my daughter Elana and said, “people are so holy – even in a basketball victory they sing about Mashiach!” She looked at me astounded, “Abba, they are not singing Mashiach, they are singing ‘gaviah gaviah (trophy).’”
But the comical has now become much more serious. I recognize that I often look lost. When people speak to me, especially in a crowd, I cannot hear. Often I respond to a question with an answer that has nothing to do with the issue presented. At other times when I do not respond, people may feel I’m upset with them. It is not uncommon for me to feel shut out; what’s before me seems to be passing me by. Even when I’m in a room with others, it’s almost as if I’m somewhere else.
My feelings of exclusion are now exacerbated when I come across halachot which declare that one who is deaf is exempt from mitzvot dependent upon hearing. For example, a deaf person is exempt from the mitzvah of megillah, which must be heard.
The rabbis may have instituted this law to make life easier for the deaf. If obligated, the deaf would come up short, as they cannot fulfill mitzvot that involve hearing. The intention of the rabbis was to calm the deaf, telling them that there is no need to be upset as this mitzvah is not your obligation.
But it’s not so simple. The deaf may feel that they are second-class citizens by being excluded from this mitzvah. While this exemption does not apply to me directly as I am not deaf, my loss of hearing has sensitized me to the challenges faced by those who cannot hear at all. Shouldn’t they, too, be obligated in such an important mitzvah?
With all my heart and soul I feel that halacha is a system of deracheha darchei noam – its ways are ways of pleasantness. I know that halacha can be more embracing of those with disabilities as significant strides have already been made.
For example: A Kohen must duchan (recite the priestly blessing) while standing. Yet, in many Orthodox synagogues, a Kohen in a wheelchair ascends and recites the priestly benediction. Some base this allowance on a technical loophole, but the reality is that halachah understands the need for inclusivity. As my friend Danny Heumann, who has been in a wheelchair for decades often tells me, “I am not confined to a wheelchair, I walk in a wheelchair.”
I felt this “walking” deeply in recent weeks when dancing with my friend Ziggy during synagogue services. Ziggy lost his legs. Though in a wheelchair, Ziggy can dance with the best. Using his hands to lift himself slightly off his chair, Ziggy is an inspiration.
In this spirit, the halacha we should be working toward is one that sees the Kohen who is sitting in his chair as actually standing.
Similarly, for many poskim (decisors of Jewish law), those who hear through a hearing aid, are, actually hearing. The aid is not considered an impediment to fulfilling the mitzvah.
My hope is that halacha will reach even further and that the definition of hearing will be expanded. In its broadest sense, hearing in halacha should be understood as any form of reception.
This perhaps is the meaning of the Biblical text we read on Shavuot that describes the Jewish people at revelation as “ro’im et ha kolot” – seeing the voices. Everyone knows that one hears voices – one doesn’t see voices. But maybe, just maybe, seeing voices is a way to say that even the deaf are able to experience sounds through reading lips or sign language or seeing the emotion of the moment or viewing words on a screen as they are being voiced.
Minimally, I am hopeful that the Tzomet microphone developed in Gush Etzion, and approved by great rabbis for use on Shabbat will be accepted in synagogues around the world. It is already used in some Orthodox synagogues around the world.
I recognize that more acceptance in this area is complicated when considering recent history. Back in the 1950s, using a microphone was second to mechitza in distinguishing an Orthodox from a Conservative synagogue. The distinction became sharper when Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, in the 1950s permitted the use of mics, but under pressure, retracted. If he did so then, the argument goes, he would do so now.
We’re living, however, 70 years later. There are no halachic barriers to the Tzomet mic as it does not involve the direct use of electricity. I do not believe use of it is a be’de’avad (post facto accommodation), but a lechatchila (an optimal fulfillment of halacha).
When Paul Simon wrote “Sound of Silence” he seemed to be speaking about the importance not only of hearing, but of listening. And so he wrote, “people talking without speaking, people hearing without listening.”
But for me, these days, “Sound of Silence” has a different meaning. It refers to sounds that I know are being made but I cannot hear. Literally, sounds of silence.
Interpreting nishma as listening is important but it is only part of the story. Na’aseh ve’nishma as, “We will do and we will hear,” is equally relevant and should never be forgotten.
The writer is founding rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and founder of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Yeshivat Maharat rabbinical schools. He is the co-founder of the International Rabbinic Fellowship.

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