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Listen! (RH1 5777)

In the Torah reading for the first day of Rosh Hashanah, we read about the birth of Isaac, a story of hope and possibility, both core themes of the Jewish New Year. We are reminded that each of us is filled with infinite possibility waiting to be actualized, but we must have hope that the New Year also means new opportunities; that we are not stuck where we were this past year.

The verse from the reading that I want to focus upon is Genesis 21:12, “But God said to Abraham, ‘Do not be distressed over the boy or your slave; whatever Sarah tells you, do as she says, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be continued for you.’” First a little background – Sarah had been barren and offered her handmaiden, Hagar, to her husband, Abraham, in her place as a surrogate mother; this is successful and she gives birth to Ishmael. Eventually, Sarah herself gives birth to a son named Isaac and then no longer wants the rival son around. Abraham is troubled that Sarah wants to eliminate his first born son and Hagar. But God reassures him that he should listen to Sarah and all will be well. However, for us as the readers we find the content disturbing to our sensibilities and grammatically the sentence structure bothers the classical rabbis.

There is a belief that the Torah was written to be as terse as possible and if there are seemly extraneous words, they are deliberately there to teach us. The great rabbinic commentator, Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, points out, that our verse could have said simply “listen to Sarah” so he wants to know what does the use of the seemingly extra word “bikola/her voice” come to teach us? He quotes an ancient Midrash (Tanchuma) that taught, “Sarah was superior to Abraham in prophecy.” This midrash is based on our extra word that the use of the term “her voice” here is not her regular voice, but her prophetic voice.

Listening is very important in our tradition, on a recent Shabbat morning we were discussing how much of Western Tradition is visual – art, theater, spectator sports; but that Jewish tradition is mostly an aural tradition. The Torah begins with God speaking and the world comes to be. Each day of creation begins with “Vayomer Elohim/And God said” speaking is our tradition of how the universe was created, and it was good.

God’s first confrontation with humanity is asking Adam and Eve, “ayeka/Where are you?” This year I have a very different understanding of that passage as a result of some learning I did. Each year I look for seminars where I can study, it seems to me that if I’m going to tell you that you should spend time studying Torah that I should do no less. Rabbi Elyse Frishman of Barnert Temple had been trying to convince me for years to join her at the ONEG Winter Kallah; a gathering of mostly Reform rabbis who teach each other, so last winter I went. Rabbi Frishman did a fascinating session on the creation story, I only want to focus on one small part of it – she points out that the Hebrew word arum within the same story is sometimes translated as naked and at other times as cunning. She argues that it should always be understood as cunning or clever, that stating Adam and Eve were naked in the garden is a mistranslation. Rather that when they ate the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge they become enlightened, cunning, clever and they made clothing because they now wanted to be creative like God, they were not embarrassed, they were empowered.

The text says that they “heard” God, but the Hebrew word shema can mean not only to hear, but also to understand. As a result of eating the forbidden fruit they now had increased understanding, it was a consequence of their intensely spiritual experience, they did not have better hearing, but a new comprehension. They hid from God not in fear or embarrassment, but to preserve their humanity, there is only so long that one can dwell in an intensely spiritual experience without losing yourself.

There is a legend told in the Talmud (BT Hagigah 14b) about four great rabbis who entered pardes, paradise, which is understood to be their mystical experience of heaven. We are told as a result of their experience Ben Azzai died; Ben Zoma went mad; Elisha ben Abuyah became a heretic and was thereafter known as Acher, the Other; and only Rabbi Akiva entered in peace and departed in peace. He then went on to be the greatest scholar of his generation.

Listening was also what transpired at Sinai. We stood at the mountain and entered into a covenant with God experiencing revelation as God gave us the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments. God spoke and we listened. But the rabbis note that the first two commandments are in the first person, but the other eight are in the third person. And so they teach that God only spoke the first two commandments to the people, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage; [and] You shall have no other gods besides Me.” (Exodus 20:2-3) At which point the people Israel found the experience too overwhelming and they said to Moses, you listen to God and tell us what was said and we will do it, but we can’t continue to listen to God directly.

Franz Rosenzweig was a 20th century German Jewish theologian who suggested that at Sinai God only spoke the first word of the Decalogue in the hearing of the Israelites, God said, “Anochi/I am” and from knowing God is real everything else followed. Taking this theme even farther there was a Hasidic master who taught that the Israelites only heard the first letter of the first word, the alef of Anochi which is silent. Obviously it is a mystical encounter, in the words of a comment in our Etz Hayim Humash, “That is, having encountered God in such a real and direct way, they understood the rightness and wrongness of certain modes of behavior without the need for words to be spoken.” (p. 441) An example of listening leading to understanding.

Of course the most famous passage about listening in the Torah is the Shema, “Hear, O Israel! The Lord [is] our God, the Lord alone [or is one].” (Deuteronomy 6:4) This declaration has become the most basic Jewish prayer. It is often the first prayer that we teach to a child, many say it every night before bed, it is said at the end of Yom Kippur and traditionally is said just before death; it is a centerpiece of both the morning and the evening services. Technically, it isn’t even a prayer – it isn’t even addressed to God, but to us. It is an affirmation of faith. If you were to see it in the Torah two of the letters are written larger than the others, the ayin of shema and the dalet of echad, the rabbis point out to us that if you put them together you create the word eid which means ‘witness;’ every time we recite the Shema we act as a witness to the Oneness of God.

Reciting the Shema is also a reminder to ourselves of the importance of listening. The Jewish understanding of prayer is very different from popular western concepts of prayer. When I’m with a group of Christian clergy and they want to pray together, someone spontaneously creates a prayer to fit the moment. Part of me is jealous of their ability to do this, but another part of me understands that is not how Jewish prayer works, we have fixed liturgy for every occasion; you just have to know your prayers to know what to use when.

The Hebrew term for prayer is lihitpalel which literally means to examine oneself. In other words, the act of praying encourages us to compare ourselves to the ideals of Judaism found within the words of the prayers in the siddur and in the mahzor. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “Jewish prayer is an act of listening. We do not bring forth our own words. The self is silent; the spirit of the people Israel speaks. In prayer, we listen to what the words convey.” As I became more immersed in Jewish prayer, I had to reconstruct my understanding of prayer for this did not fit with my conception of prayer.

The entire month of Tishre that begins today is one of introspection. We look at the lives we are living, we listen to our own internal voice and we judge ourselves based upon the teachings of Judaism and our own moral code. We contemplate what needs to change. Change is never easy, but it is important and it can be worthwhile. Our tradition teaches that we can be better than we were last year; there is always room for improvement. The High Holy Days challenge us to better ourselves. Will you accept the challenge this year?

Listening, like most things in life, is a skill that can be developed. It comes more easily to some than to others, but we can all practice listening and get better at it. Most of us are much more proficient at talking than we are at listening. Listening takes both patience and effort. When I earned my Master’s degree in Counseling they had us practice active listening. To really hear what was being said to us, to process it and to reflect it back to the speaker so that they knew that they had been heard and understood. It was humbling to discover that something so basic could be so therapeutic and was so rarely done in day to day conversations.

Recently, I watched on line Rabbi Avi Weiss present to the NYBR on the Power of Listening and he shared the following story from Facebook:

This morning I went into a convenience store to get a protein bar. As I walked through the door, I noticed that there were two white police officers (one about my age and one several years older) talking to the clerk (an older white woman) behind the counter about the shootings that have gone on in the past few days. They all looked at me and fell silent, I went about my business to get what I was looking for, as I turned back up the isle to go pay, the older officer was standing at the top of the isle watching me.

As I got closer he asked me, “How I was doing?” I replied, “Okay and you?” He looked at me with a strange look and asked me, “How are you really doing?” I looked at him and said, “I’m tired!” His reply was, “me too.” Then he said, “I guess it’s not easy to being either of us right now is it.” I said, “No, it is not.” Then he hugged me and I cried. I had never seen that man before in my life. I have no idea why he was moved to talk to me. What I do know is that he and I shared a moment this morning, that was absolutely beautiful. No judgments. No justifications, just two people sharing a moment.
(Facebook Post by Natasha Howell, July 8, 2016)

We can so easily reach out to another, but it calls upon us to do a little more than we are comfortable doing and to move beyond the simple meaning of the words we hear and probe more deeply. Hearing not only what’s being said, but also what’s not being said, this is not so easy to do. I personally find it very challenging. I tend to be a straightforward person, I say what I mean and so I have a tendency to take the words of others at face value, accepting what they say as an accurate reflection of what they are thinking and feeling when asked. But I’ve learned the hard way over the years that this is often not the case. People sometimes lie or at least dissemble, hiding their true feelings. Perhaps it is fear of being hurt. Most people are not so willing to open themselves up to others.

But sometimes we are moved to pour our feelings out in words as Rina Ariel did in her eulogy for her 13 year old daughter, Hallel Yaffa Ariel, who was murdered in her bed in Kiryat Arba last June.

God, open my lips, and let my mouth declare your praise. Halleli – look around – everyone has gathered and come to you! Abba (God) how do you eulogize a thirteen and half year old girl? Tell me, what are the words to eulogize a flower, a pure soul, a girl with ambition, a beautiful girl? Your only sin was that you were almost perfect – literally almost perfect. You didn’t need anything.

Thirteen and half years ago, after many challenges and trials, I merited to give birth to you, and then there was light in my life. You had a crown of light, Hallel. You transformed me into a mother.

Thirteen and half years ago, Abba, you gave me a deposit. I am now returning that deposit to you with love, and with faith. Take it, Abba, take my deposit back. But know this: Halleli has come to the Throne of Glory. But Abba, it is crowded there. There’s no more room. I pleaded with you that Hallel be the last sacrifice. Enough! Sarah Imenu, hug her, because I, her mother, can never touch her again. Miriam, take your tambourine and make some room next to the Throne of Glory so that Hallel can dance.

I stand here and say, Halleli my sweet, take a final hug from your Ema.
(Translation by Rabbi Steven Exler)

We listen to those words and hearts break. We hear not only what she says, but we sense the pain behind her words. We are given a glimpse of her experience. No parent should ever have to bury a child, but it happens all too often, and sadly it has happened here in our own community all too often.

Coming back to the verse in our Torah reading, in a comment by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a 19th century German modern Orthodox rabbi as found in our Etz Hayim Humash, says, “don’t only listen to her words, her demands, listen to your wife’s anguish, her fear, the tone of pleading in the voice of the women you have been married to for so many years.” (p. 114)

As I talked to and listened to my colleagues discuss subjects for High Holy Day sermons a common theme seemed to be politics. I have to tell you that I no desire to discuss politics with you. First of all, I don’t think any of us come to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah to discuss politics. Moreover, rabbis know Torah and Judaism, but that does not make us experts in politics; I’m sure that there are many who know as much or more than I on the subject. The only thing I have to contribute to the topic of political debate as a rabbi is the importance of civility when discussing politics with those who have a different perspective than we do. In other words, the important aspect of political debate is the ability to listen to the other. Listening is a very Jewish subject.

When two study together they listen to one another even when they disagree with each other. A famous story is told of two early Babylonian rabbis – Resh Lakish and Rabbi Yochanan. Resh Lakish left the Yeshiva and joined the circus, worked for a time as a gladiator and then became a bandit. Rabbi Yochanan brought Resh Lakish back to the Yeshiva and they became study partners. At one point a despute between them became so nasty that Rabbi Yochanan thought ill of his friend and some say even prayed for him to die. Subsequently, Resh Lakish became ill and died. Rabbi Yochanan was so guilt ridden that he lost his mind and the other rabbis prayed for him to die. (BT Baba Mezia 84a)

We have to learn to be thoughtful when we dispute with someone, we must strive to listen to them and to try and take to heart their words even when we disagree with them. For only then can we help to bring peace and harmony into the world. And we must learn to hear the word of God in the world. Rabbi Louis Finkelstein, Talmud scholar of the Jewish Theological Seminary once said, “When I pray, I speak to God. When I study Torah, God speaks to me.” May we all strive to be a part of that sacred conversation.

And let us all say, Amen!

Tue, July 7 2020 15 Tammuz 5780