Listening Boot Camp, a.k.a. Rosh HaShanah (1st day Rosh HaShanah 5782 / 2021)

The Hebrew and Yiddish writer and Zionist leader Shmaryahu Levin would tell a story of a transformative incident that took place when he was age 10, in Eastern Europe. He received a gift of his very own Shofar.  So as Rosh HaShanah approached, he was so excited to practice blowing the Shofar.  But try as he could, he just couldn’t get any sound out of it at all.  Each day, during the month of Elul leading up to Rosh HaShanah, he would spend at least an hour - holding his mouth in various positions, making various kinds of rude vibrating noises with his lips, trying to produce any sound with the Shofar.  But to no avail. 

The day before Rosh HaShanah, as he was practicing outside his home, a Russian farmer came by.  “What’s that?”  So he explained it, and the farmer said, “Can I try?”  and he took the Shofar, held it up to his lips - and out came a Tekiah Gedolah that would be the envy of any Shofar-blower in the world. 

And young Shmaryahu raced back to his teacher and choking back tears, he said, "It’s just not fair!  I spend all this time, for more than a month, practicing to blow the Shofar, and this farmer, who has never even HEARD of a Shofar, gets a beautiful sound out of it!”  

And the teacher reassured him: “The blessing that the shofar blower says before blowing the shofar is ‘lishmoa kol shofar,’ blessed are you who commanded us concerning LISTENING to the sound of the shofar.  So even for the shofar blowers themselves, the mitzvah, the commandment, isn’t in the blowing.  The mitzvah is in the listening.  The trick isn’t how to blow the Shofar.  The trick is how to listen.”


I have long been inspired by that story, and in fact, especially this year, I wonder if maybe the entire holiday of Rosh HaShanah is best understood as a holiday about training ourselves to listen.  As if God is saying: You are starting a new year:  so get yourself in shape and practice the single most important skill you’ll use throughout the year. It’s time for “Listening Boot Camp,” otherwise known as Rosh haShanah.  You’ll listen to each other, you’ll listen to the sound of the shofar, You’ll listen to Biblical stories about people who for one reason or another are unable to listen to each other.  And hopefully after this holiday you’ll be better equipped to start a truly new year. 


Every part of Jewish tradition trains us to listen. For example, think about the Shema, which is the closest thing we have to a creed of the Jewish people. “Shma Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad.”  “Hear O Israel: Adonai is our God, Adonai is One.”  Most of the time we say that the message of the Shema is there’s only one God, and we regard the first two words ‘Shma Yisrael’ as the preamble. And yet there is a strain of interpretation of these words that says: No:  Shma Yisrael is not just the preamble; Shma Yisrael is a commandment in and of itself.


While there are eminent rabbinic sages who have taught this idea, I am moved by how this idea was expressed by a famous Jew who was not a rabbinic scholar:  Steven Spielberg remembers, “I was taught by my mom and dad that in Judaism, the most important prayer is the Shema.  ...It was taught to me from childhood that the most important thing I could do as a Jew was to listen. [this] wasn’t a way for my parents to say, “I know more than you.”  [they didn’t mean that I needed to listen to THEM.] … They meant listen to yourself.  Listen to those little whispers that we tend to not want to hear because they’re too soft and we tend to listen to the shout, not the whisper. “So listening carefully was what I was taught all my life.”


My colleague Rabbi Amy Eilberg was the first woman to be ordained as a Conservative rabbi, and today she focuses on training people in compassionate listening. And she notes that the second paragraph of the Shema also uses language about listening - והיה אם שמוע תשמעו את מצוותי - it shall happen, God says, if you listen to my commandments, then you will have adequate rain and the crops will grow and if you fail to listen then the rain will stop and the crops will die.

Rabbi Eilberg notes that from a literal perspective, “this text strains credulity.” 
But, intrigued by this line, Rabbi Eilberg would ask participants in her workshops to recall a time they were deeply listened to and then describe what it felt like:  “Across a wide range of experiences, people use words such as ‘healed,’ ‘loved,’ ‘whole,’ and ‘at peace.’ ”   And Rabbi Eilberg would then ask the opposite question:  “to think of a recent time when they listened to someone absently and to note what happened next.” She notes that the differences were stark. Some participants would talk about ignoring a child’s need for attention - and soon thereafter there would be a temper tantrum.  Or how distracted or self-centered listening with an intimate partner evoked a storm of negative emotion.  All this leads Rabbi Eilberg to say that the passage in the Torah is absolutely true, just not in meteorological terms.  “The puzzling passage predicted dire consequences for poor listening.   Relationally speaking, this is a description of life as it is.” 


And perhaps we are even more aware of the consequences of poor listening this year than even last  year at this time.   One of our themes from last High Holy Days was that whereas it was so challenging that we were all contending with the pandemic, at least it was something that was pulling us all together, and helping us to notice the commonality of everyone, and to listen to our common experience.  Well that’s so 2020.  We’re clearly in a different place this year.  Our neighbor the Rev. Dr Willard Ashley in Jersey City, who is a world authority on how communities respond to disasters, has noted that disasters of all kinds follow a common life cycle that often includes a heroic phase, when people do things like applaud health care workers at 7pm each night. And you should enjoy the heroic phase while it lasts because, no matter how beautiful it is,  inevitably it’s going to be followed by a disillusionment phase and a communal conflict phase.  I’ll admit - I’ve lived through several disasters and every time I am heartened and inspired by the heroic phase, and I’m always surprised and disappointed when it ends -- 

And I shouldn’t be. But I am stunned by the quickness of people refusing to listen on such a wide range of contentious issues, from mask mandates and vaccine mandates, to voting rights and the way that the United States’ history of racial conflict should be taught, and in such a wide range of venues, from airplane aisles to school board meetings to legislative halls.  And of course 5781 was the year in which rioters stormed the United States Capitol and nearly succeeded in stopping the certification of Electoral College ballots.  It doesn’t get much worse than this - or so we hope and pray.


Israel this year saw the greatest intercommunity strife in its modern history.  Amid strife over the Temple Mount and the Shekh Jarrah neighborhood, and conflict between Israel and Hamas, there was widespread rioting and arson in cities in Israel with mixed Jewish and Arab populations.  Amid other acts of terrible violence, a gang of Arabs in the Israeli city of Akko beat a randomly selected Jewish motorist nearly to death.  A gangs of Jews in the Israeli city of Bat Yam beat a randomly selected Arab motorist to death --  in both cases, in regions that had long prided themselves on relatively peaceful relations between Arab and Jewish neighbors.  


But there were also some rays of hope this year, of which I would like to mention two.  The better known of these rays of hope is that, surprisingly enough, within weeks after this outburst of violence that was so roundly condemned by the entire Israeli Jewish and Arab political spectrum, Israel’s Knesset formed a coalition government that included right wing Jewish parties, left wing Jewish parties, parties with mixed Jewish and Arab participation, and also the second largest Israeli Arab political party. This of course does not mean that everything is rosy in Israel in terms of intergroup relations -- there are serious serious problems remaining to be addressed. But it is a reminder that even those in conflicted relationships can manage to learn to listen to each other, to sit at a table together and even to create government policy together. 


And less well known but also a ray of hope is that during the weeks days of violence this past spring, a fascinating dialogue began taking place on the social media app called Clubhouse, which you may know is an audio-only app, meaning that its entire focus is on listening. What started as an informal conversation between friends who were Israeli and Palestinian grew into a multi-day global online gathering, continuing around the clock for more than a week, called ‘Meet Palestinians and Israelis.’  Israelis and Palestinians would be invited to speak, alternating, not debating but speaking personally about their own experiences with the conflict -- often sharing terribly traumatic stories of violence and fear --  and sharing their own feelings.  With many hundreds of people speaking and with hundreds of thousands listening in, including many from around the world, from all sides, who had never listened in a serious way to a perspective on the conflict that was different from their own. Clubhouse seemed to be uniquely suited to host this conversation, as it had to happen in real time, and demanded listening to people’s actual unedited voices, in what was described by participants and observers as history’s most wide-ranging and genuine grassroots conversation about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.


Again, this is not to say that Israel and her residents and neighbors are now poised for the future of peace that we have so long dreamt about. Peaceful coexistence between Israel and all of its neighbors, and between Israelis and Palestinians, is still a far-away dream.  But it is inconceivable that such a future could possibly be achieved without listening, and every act of listening brings that dream just slightly closer.

Every failure to listen is different, and our biblical readings on this holiday describe a number of different listening failures, and we can learn something from every one of these stories as we commit ourselves to a new year of better listening.  


This morning, in the Haftarah:  we were introduced to a couple, Hannah and Elkanah, who do not have children together -- but whereas this fact is devastating for Hannah,  It is merely mildly disappointing for Elkanah, presumably because he already has children from another marriage. Elkanah responds to his wife Hannah’s sorrow with questions that, while sweet, reflect a tragic failure to listen to what his wife is going through.  He says:  לָ֣מֶה תִבְכִּ֗י וְלָ֙מֶה֙ לֹ֣א תֹֽאכְלִ֔י וְלָ֖מֶה יֵרַ֣ע לְבָבֵ֑ךְ “Hannah, why are you crying and why aren’t you eating? Why are you so sad? הֲל֤וֹא אָֽנֹכִי֙ ט֣וֹב לָ֔ךְ מֵעֲשָׂרָ֖ה בָּנִֽים׃  Am I not more devoted to you than ten sons?”


Yes, Elkanah asks Hannah a question.  But as Alex Trebek of blessed memory might say: Sometimes what looks like a question is actually an answer in the form of a question. Elkanah’s question demonstrates that he seems unable to stretch himself, unable to ask Hannah to express her feelings more fully, unable to demonstrate that he truly hears her and empathizes with her.  Nor does Elkanah’s question emanate from curiosity.  In essence, he’s saying “Wouldn’t you agree that I am an absolutely excellent husband to you?”  He does it because he wants to get Hannah to change the way that she is thinking, rather than to listen deeply to her. 

But Step One of sacred listening is to suspend all judgment, to simply be in the presence of another person and receive their thoughts and their feelings.  It’s deceptively simple - and it’s all too rare. And those of us who know the experience of being listened to without judgment know that it is remarkably healing.


The psychiatrist and author Victor Frankl, who survived the Shoah and used his Shoah expeirence to help him to devise his theories, tells the story of a patient of his who once called him distraught in the middle of the night having lost the will to live. And Dr Frankl stayed on the phone with her for 2 hours talking with her and listening to her, trying to give her all the insight he could share about why life was worth living, until eventually she told him that her feeling of crisis was over and she had resolved to live. 


In a follow-up conversation some days later, Dr Frankl asked this patient with curiosity - “What was it that I said that helped you to resolve your crisis?”
And the patient said: “It was nothing that you said. It was the fact that you were willing to stay on the phone and listen to me for two hours in the middle of the night.”  


If only Elkanah could truly have listened to his wife Hannah in her time of need. The example of Elkanah reminds us that listening to someone else - whether it’s a stranger or a beloved family member - is an act of radical generosity of spirit, of humility, and of suppression of ego.


But our readings for this day include yet more examples of failures to listen. There are times when we can’t listen to others because even before we hear them, we have formed assumptions about what they will say. And that’s what happens in the next scene in our haftarah. The whole family goes to the shrine called Shiloh -- and while at the shrine Hannah expresses her deepest and most heartfelt prayer for a child.  We read:    וְחַנָּה הִיא מְדַבֶּרֶת עַל־לִבָּהּ רַק שְׂפָתֶיהָ נָּעוֹת וְקוֹלָהּ לֹא יִשָּׁמֵעַ  Hannah was speaking only in her heart.  Her lips were moving, but her voice could not be heard.  A High Priest named Eli who presided over the shrine in Shiloh sees this woman, presumably with her eyes closed, moving her lips but making no sound, and he comes to the most logical conclusion: she must be drunk.  So, disparagingly, Eli says to her: Get rid of your wine!  Even before hearing Hannah, he had already sized her up. And Eli’s failure to listen to Hannah reminds us that listening to another person entails curiosity, and a willingness to be surprised, a willingness to suspend all expectations. And after having been stereotyped by Eli, treated as a member of a category rather than as an individual, it must have taken Hannah much courage to respond as she did, saying:    I’m not drunk; rather, I am pouring out my heart to God in sorrow. 

So frequently in recent years I find myself responding to items in the news by quoting the song from Simon and Garfunkel long ago: “A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”  We’ll listen to what fits into our preexisting narrative on any subject And not only will we be unlikely to change that preexisting narrative, but we’re likely to discount and even disparage information that doesn’t fit with our assumptions.    So it is significantly to Eli’s credit that he acknowledges his mistake and offers his own prayer for Hannah. While his prior assumptions were a barrier that prevented him from truly listening to Hannah, he also is a model to emulate, in his ability to overcome his assumptions.

During this past Jewish year, the Jewish world lost two of the very greatest scholars and teachers and prolific writers who will each have an enduring effect on the Jewish world and on the entire world for generations to come: Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, formerly chief rabbi of Great Britain, and Rabbi Abraham Twersky, psychiatrist and founder of the Jewish recovery movement. For each of them, listening deeply was absolutely critical to their work and their writing and their influence. 


Rabbi Twersky did more to normalize discussion of addiction and mental health in the Jewish community than any other person.  At a time when people made assumptions that substance abuse was a problem that did not exist in the Jewish community, Rabbi Twersky encouraged a Jewish spiritual discourse around the Twelve Steps and showed how open and non-judgmental listening can go such a long way towards helping people towards recovery and healing. 

And for Rabbi Sacks, listening - especially listening to those with whom we disagree - is one of the most prominent themes in his voluminous writings. He would note that the instruction to listen is found not less than 92 times in the Torah.  In one of his final essays written just shortly before his death last year, Rabbi Sacks wrote about how the Greek and Roman world tended to use words connected to sight to communicate understanding - like ‘I see what you mean’ - Jewish writings in the Bible and in the Talmud almost exclusively describe understanding using the metaphor of hearing rather than seeing.   After all, the torah says, remember when you heard God’s voice on Mt Sinai, and don’t be led astray by your eyes. And the Hasidic master Mordecai Leiner, the rabbi of Ishbitz - suggests that this is because when we see, we can detect only that that is visible on the surface of something, but it is through listening that we can probe more deeply and detect what is under the surface. And Rabbi Sacks described a blessing of the pandemic era that it had temporarily quieted the world and at least for a moment, enabled deeper and more sensitive listening. 

Sometimes there are more tragic reasons why people fail to listen - like the episode in today’s torah reading about Hagar and Ishmael, in which Hagar fears that Ishmael will soon die, and she moves away from him so she will not see him die or hear his cries.  And in fact, neither Hagar nor the narrator of the story hears Ishmael’s cries - But we read  וישמע אלהים אל קול הנער  “God heard the cry of the child.”  Hagar’s failure to hear her son’s cry is devastating and violates every parenting instinct. It is likely a response to Hagar’s horrifying and traumatic circumstances.


But then there is an unusual formulation in the text.   The Angel of God tells Hagar, כי שמע אלקים אל קול הנער באשר הוא שם -- “God has heard the call of the boy there, where he is.” And these last words - ‘there, where he is’ -- are perplexing and appear to add nothing to help us to understand this story. The dominant approach of our commentators including Rashi is to say: God heard Ishmael at that moment. That was not a moment for God to consider Ishmael’s prior history, and any mistakes he had made in his life, andit was not a moment for God to consider anything in Ishmael’s future.  It was a moment when God was completely present to Ishmael at that moment.   That’s the gift of the truest listening -- and ideally the paradigm for the kind of listening for which we strive. 


And this kind of listening can be instructive for us when we engage in conversations with people with whom we disagree. When I talk with someone with whom I disagree, how can I do so with the person באשר הוא שם ba’asher hu sham - being fully present to the person ?   That often means listening for the emotions behind the words. I find, and maybe you also find, that when I speak with people who have strongly held beliefs with which I intensely disagree, I can often detect fear behind those beliefs.   (And the people who disagree strongly with me may also detect fear behind my beliefs.) Fear is an emotion - so fear is not right or wrong.  It simply is.  And that leads to a suggested technique for having conflicted conversations, suggested by my colleague Rabbi Amy Eilberg among others, which is: when listening to someone else, including in a conflict situation, to affirm that I have heard the emotions that underlie the person’s perspective.   Whereas it doesn’t necessarily prompt a breakthrough, it may go a long way towards helping people communicate when we listen for and affirm the emotion that we hear behind the words.   At the very least, they are more likely to leave the encounter with the feeling of having been heard.


On my mind today is a friend and colleague of mine who was voted by our rabbinical school class to be our class speaker at our ordination.  Actually Naomi and I met him on the same day that we met each other at a Hillel conference for Jewish in the performing arts. He was an outstanding actor who then went to rabbinical school, and we all knew throughout all of rabbinical school that he would be our class’s outstanding communicator.  


In his ordination speech, he said:  “When I entered rabbinical school, I was excited to fulfill this sacred role of being able to talk with people at special moments in their lives - to know what to say to a couple about to get married.  To know what to say to a grieving family members at a time of loss. To know what to say to a person at a time of crisis and heartbreak and spiritual distress. 


“And today I am just as excited to fulfill the sacred role of being a rabbi even though I now know I got it all backwards.  Because the sacred role of being a rabbi is being able to listen to people at special moments in their lives - to know how to listen to a couple about to get married.  To know how to listen to grieving family members at a time of loss.To know how to listen to a person at a time of crisis and heartbreak and spiritual distress.” 


It’s not that the talking is not important - but the talking doesn’t help if you don’t know how to listen.  I so appreciate how Rabbi Sacks, also a world famous orator, Would say:  “Crowds are moved by great speakers, but lives are changed by great listeners.”  During the new year of 5782, let’s use the power of listening and change some lives - The lives of others, and our own. Shanah tovah!



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