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Rabbi Rami Shapiro: To Listen and Love

Continuing our series developing the ideas behind the #PledgeToListen campaign, we’re delighted to include a guest contribution from acclaimed author, teacher and speaker Rabbi Rami Shapiro on how Free Trip to Egypt reflects some core concepts within theology.

There is a moment in Free Trip to Egypt when Katie sobbingly shares her suffering with a Muslim friend and her friend’s mother. There is genuine love in that encounter sparked by a special kind of listening that took all three women beyond race, religion, ethnicity and culture to an unscripted meeting between unlabeled human beings.

In the Hebrew Bible this quality of listening is implied in the phrase: Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad. Ve-ahavta et Adonai Elohecha: “Listen Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). To understand the deeper meaning of these words and the true power of listening to generate love, let’s unpack the Hebrew to reveal meanings the conventional English translation fails to reveal.

SH’MA/Listen

The quality of listening called for here is to listen in such a way as to realize the interconnectedness of all life. We achieve this quality of listening when we allow our ears to take in all the sounds around us without inviting the mind to label or judge them. Listening attentively at this moment I hear the creaking of my house, the tumbling of my clothes dryer, the various tweets of the numerous birds who are my closest neighbors, the distant barking of dogs and the slamming of a nearby car door. Writing about this I distinguish one sound from another, but in the act of listening I make no such distinctions. And the more I listen the less I am aware of being the listener. There is just listening. This is the listening that reveals the unity.

YISRAEL/Israel

While commonly used to refer to the People Israel, the Hebrew word Yisrael literally means One Who Wrestles with God. Wrestling with God is the act of making sense and meaning out of the wildness of life. In this sense we are all Godwrestlers, we are all Yisrael. Certainly this was true of Katie and her comforters wrestling as they did with the pain and suffering Katie shared.

ADONAI ELOHEINU/Y-H-V-H

Our God Adonai, Lord, is a rabbinic euphemism for Y-H-V-H the unpronounceable Hebrew Name of God. Sadly the euphemism obscures the meaning of the very Name it is supposed to represent. Where Adonai is a noun, Y-H-V-H is a verb; where Adonai establishes hierarchy, Y-H-V-H promotes holarchy, integration and interdependence; where Adonai is about power, Y-H-V-H is about empowering. Y-H-V-H is the future imperfect form of the Hebrew verb “to be” and is better translated not as “Lord” but as Happening. Identifying Y-H-V-H as “our God” (Eloheinu) frees us from all theology since theology reduces God to a noun, an object to be worshipped, while Y-H-V-H is a verb to be experienced. Identifying God as Y-H-V-H frees us from the notion that God is a being or even a Supreme Being, and reminds us that God is Y-H-VH: Be-ing itself, the process of happening manifesting all reality. God as Y-H-V-H puts an end to arguments as to whether or not God exists by revealing that God is existing itself.

Y-H-V-H ECHAD/Y-H-V-H is One

Y-H-V-H is the Happening of all reality the way an ocean is waving of every wave, and just as there is no separation between ocean and wave, so there is no separation between God and reality. This is what St. Paul is teaching us when he says God is that reality “in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). God is everything: Y-H-V-H Echad. The realization of the fundamental unity of all life in, with, and as God gives rise to a universal moral code: justice and compassion for all beings or as Genesis 12:3 puts it, being “a blessing to all the families of the earth” human and otherwise.

VE-AHAVTA/And You Shall Love

Can love be commanded? Of course not; authentic love arises out of the moment and cannot be imposed on the moment. Because this is so, “You shall Love Y-H-V-H your God” isn’t a command but an axiom: When you listen to the unity of Y-H-V-H manifesting as all reality, you shall love that reality with, as the verse goes on to say, “all your heart, all your breath, and all your being.” The text is not commanding you to love. Rather, it is pointing out that if you listen deeply and experience the absolute unity of God, then you will be filled with love for God and that manifesting of God we call Creation.

This is the listening/loving demonstrated by Katie and her Muslim comforters. The mother and daughter listened to Katie’s suffering and could only feel love for Katie herself. Something very different happens with Jason and Jenna when they visit the Zarritual later in the film. Zar is a healing ritual originating in North Africa and gaining popularity in urban Muslim centers such as Cairo. Jason and Jenna didn’t listen to the healing message of Zar. On the contrary, they saw it as alien, frightening and strange. They called it satanic and labeled the practitioners “satanic worshippers” (1:12:13).

Unlike the mother and daughter who listened and loved, Jenna and Jason fled and feared, and prayed to Jesus to protect themselves and everyone watching this film from the satanic power of Zar. Jenna prays for Jesus to enter the hearts of the Zar practitioners and awaken them to the truth, by which she means her truth.

Jenna ends her prayer saying, “we are so free in you God,” but is she free? Someone who is free is capable of listening without bias, capable of seeing what is really happening as this North African healing ceremony unfolds rather than imposing her own fear-laced drama over it. Jenna and Jason are not free, they are afraid. Where the Bible challenges us to love the stranger as yourself (Deuteronomy 10:9), meaning to listen so deeply to the other as to realize that they too are Y-H-V-H, they flee the strange, fear the stranger, and label what they chose not to understand “satanic”.

The listening to which we are called, the listening that manifests as loving, knows no others, but sees all beings—human and otherwise, neighbors and strangers—as Y-H-VH. And with this revelation comes love and not fear.

Free Trip to Egypt does a wonderful job of illustrating the human capacity for love and fear, and makes it a movie worthy of our time and attention.