Tefillah Tuesday: Full Vessels

It’s Tuesday again, and the autumn holidays are passed, so it’s time for Tefillah Tuesday, once again. Let’s turn to the second “paragraph” of the Shema, Deuteronomy 11:13-20, which begins: והיה אם שמוע תשמעו אל מצוותי/ve’haya im shamo’a tishme’u, “now, if you will indeed heed my commandments …”

This verse employs a common Biblical Hebrew grammatical structure sometimes called the “infinitive absolute,” recognizable by its doubled verbs, in this case שמוע תשמעו/shamo’a tishme’u. This grammatical form serves to intensify whatever statement is being made, and you’ll often see such phrases translated with words like surely or indeed, as I did here. The verb שמע/Shema in context means heed, to accept, although of course the more basic definition is to hear.

Those doubled verbs call out for some creative reading, or midrash. The Talmudic Sages love to read hyper-literally, even distorting ordinary semantic meaning to reveal hidden meaning. On our phrase, the 3rd or 4th century Palestinian sage Rabbi Zeira – or perhaps it was his colleague Rabbi Hanina bar Pappa, the Talmud is unsure, – read those doubled verbs as if they were two distinct statements: a) אם שמוע “if you hear,” or perhaps “if you listen,” then b) תשמעו “you will hear.”

Here is his teaching [Sukkot 46a]:

בא וראה שלא כמדת הקדוש ברוך הוא מדת בשר ודם; מדת בשר ודם, כלי ריקן מחזיק, מלא אינו מחזיק, אבל מדת הקדוש ברוך הוא: מלא מחזיק, ריקן אינו מחזיק, שנאמר והיה אם שמוע תשמע וגו’ אם שמוע – תשמע, ואם לאו – לא תשמע.

“Come see how different God is from people! In the human realm, an empty vessel can hold more while a full vessel can hold no more. But with God (or in the religious realm) it is the opposite: what’s already full can always hold more, while what’s empty can hold nothing. אם שמוע if you already know how to hear, or if you listen, then תשמעו then you will hear.”

Why, how, under what conditions do we find mitzvot and tradition meaningful? That depends largely on what we bring to the table, or the shul. People who are full of religious feeling, enthusiasm, curiosity, faith and commitment – they are the full vessels who can always find more meaning in Judaism. They are listening for the music. The person who comes spiritually empty – begrudging, cynical, resentful, lazy – is likely to leave empty too. They have little capacity to hear the music, and no more room in their empty vessels.

When you daven this phrase, try to come as a full vessel, already spilling over. Try to listen. Then you’ll hear.