Perhaps it’s because Shema Yisroel is imprecisely translated as “Hear, O Israel” rather than “Listen, O Israel,” but we Jews have a lot of trouble listening. We didn’t listen to Moshe in the desert. We didn¹t listen to Shmuel when he warned us about the responsibilities of accepting a king. We didn’t listen to Yirmyahu during the last days of Jerusalem. We didn’t listen to Mordechai in Persia.
Today, however, the problem has acquired a new wrinkle. Our contemporary sages speak, and somehow the message fails to reach us at all, depriving us of even the opportunity to listen.
Our gedolim have issued proclamations concerning the excesses of multi-thousand dollar custom sheitels, but frum women continue to buy them. Our gedolim have spoken out against the message (prevalent in many high schools and seminaries) that a frum woman measures her success only by how many children she produces, but the attitude persists. Some gedolim have warned against (pardon me while I duck under my desk) the dangers of the internet, but rather than trying to understand their concerns many of us reflexively pass judgment that they are out of touch with the modern world. Fiscal irresponsibility, alcoholism, lack of business ethics, lack of decorum in shul, ad nauseum remain chronic problems despite the admonitions of our greatest sages, whose words seem to go unheard rather than unheeded.
I would propose (at certain risk of upsetting a lot of people) that the problem is largely the frum incarnation of the “Dilbert principle,” i.e., a crisis in middle management. Our sages have a bully pulpit only to the extent that congregational rabbis, school principals, morahs, and rebbes communicate their messages accurately, articulately, and decisively, to their own parishioners and students.
If schools turn out young frum women who believe they have no contribution to make to Klal Yisroel other than the number of babies they produce, should not much of the responsibility rest at the doorstep of those schools and those educators? If parents spend as much on their daughter¹s sheitel as they do on a year of Torah education, is that not an indication that their rabbi has not used his pulpit to amplify the voices of the gedolim?
The solution is even more elusive than the problem. When I complained to one of my rebbeim about a particular example of rabbinic irresponsibility, he told me sharply to do nothing that might erode the confidence of the congregation in their spiritual leader, for that would cause much more harm than the current problem.
So if the message of the gedolim isn’t getting through, and to address the problem head on causes greater harm than it solves, what are we to do?
Perhaps the beginning of an answer may be found in this parable: in his travels through foreign lands, a king had heard a beautiful melody but could not remember how it went. Upon returning home, he instructed his court musicians to play every song they knew, no matter how long it took. Hours passed, then days, until one frustrated player dared to ask: “Your Majesty, what is the point of playing so long? Perhaps we have already played the tune you seek and it went past you unnoticed.”
“No,” said the king. “I may not know the tune, but I will know it when I hear it.”
A human being is composed of three parts: his nefesh, which seeks physical reward and immediate gratification; his ruach, which desires intellectual or emotional reward and can accept delayed gratification; and his neshoma, his divine soul that seeks to perform the will of G-d.
The eternal struggle of man in this world is to silence the callings of his nefesh and his ruach so that he can listen carefully to his neshoma, which communicates with him through an ethereal melody, guiding him toward the destiny for which he was created. We all must challenge ourselves daily to be intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually honest in interpreting that tune and divining the difference between what we want to do and what HaShem wants us to do.
Shema Yisroel! We may not always be sure, but if we listen with our minds and our hearts and, especially, with our neshomas, we will recognize the tune when we hear it.
This challenge is particularly acute for (but certainly not limited to) ba’alei tshuva, who grew up with the intellectual egalitarianism and cynicism of the secular world and often without the advantages of a close personal relationship with a spiritual mentor. Every one of us must seek out a rav whom he trusts and who is trustworthy. It takes guidance, perseverance, integrity, and merciless introspection.
Mostly we have to listen. Only then will we succeed in recognizing the difference between the rabbi who tells us what we want to hear and the rabbi who tells us what we need to hear, between Rabbi Dilbert and the rav who will guide us in the footsteps of the sages.