Responsible Listening - Responsibility
Rosh Hashanah 5778 - September 2017
Temple Bat Yam & North Tahoe Hebrew Congregation
Walking into a preschool room can be a source of anxiety, maybe even fear. For others, a source of energy and excitement. The noise, the seeming chaos can certainly feel overwhelming. But, for those who have been in the presence of truly amazing, patient, loving and skilled preschool teachers, there is an amazing reality in their classrooms. The respect they hold for the little ones in their care and the love they show them while simultaneously providing structure and healthy discipline is awe-some; it is a balancing act worthy of cirque de soleil. Their brand of listening and paying attention exudes passion for their work and the responsibility they hold dear.
I recall a few opportunities to spend time in such sacred spaces, playing, learning and exploring with these young students. Once, I was charged with exploring the Jewish value, the middah, of Shmiat HaOzen - A Listening Ear literally, but best understood as attentive listening, and I got to explore this with a group of three to four years olds. With the support and creativity of my mother, my eternal source of teaching ideas, I devised an activity to model the skill of listening.
It began with me asking questions about the students lives’ and trying to listen to them all share at the same time. A classroom of fourteen three to four year olds…..all answering questions about their siblings, what their mommies and daddies do for work and even the names of their pets. After a few moments of the chaos, I asked them: What do we need to be able to listen and to hear our friends. They unanimously agreed that: All we need is our ears.
So I asked one youngster to tell me more about her dog. As she started to describe her dog Larry to me, I turned my ear towards her, but focused my attention elsewhere, looking around the room as she talked. As I did this, she expressed frustration and said that I wasn’t listening. Immediately, we all identified together and decided that: To listen, to truly take in what others are sharing with us, we need more than our ears. Listening we agreed is a full body experience. Listening is more than hearing. Listening is more than the vibrations and sounds entering our ears. Listening demands our attention, our focus and our presence. Listening leads to learning. Listening requires responsibility.
On Rosh Hashanah, we find a unique b’racha - a blessing, that we articulate to remind ourselves of our obligation to this skill - to listening. We recite each and every year as we prepare for the sounds of the shofar: Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, who hallows us with mitzvot, commanding us to hear the sound of the Shofar. We can recite this b’racha, and we can respond with the requisite Amen and simply listen to the tekiah, the shevarim and teruah and even the tekiah gedolah, but we all know our Jewish tradition’s charge that we dig deeper into our liturgy, our texts and even our rituals for deepening meaning. In his Machzor Hadash, Hershel Matt writes about the shofar blasts: "The blasts of the shofar call us to repentance, to renew our loyalty to God, to defy false gods, to remember Sinai, to keep the mitzvot, to renew our devotion to the Land of Israel, to recall the vision of the prophets when all peoples shall live in peace, the blasts of the shofar reminds us of the flight of time and to live our lives with purpose.” ( The Sound of the Shofar by Hershel J. Matt, Machzor Hadash p.244)
Matt is making sure that we hearken to more than the sounds of the ram’s horn alone. These primitive sounds are a call to not only listen, he teaches, but also to learn and then to do. They are a call to action….they are a call to be responsible in our listening and ensuring we take on the tasks that life presents us.
Over recent weeks, engaged in my preparations for these Yamim Noraim - Days of Awe, I have found a struggle that is unfamiliar. My eternal source of inspiration, my wife and friend Rachel, has encouraged me in so many ways, reminding me that this year, there is so much to talk about. There are so many headlines, news stories, opportunities to improve our community, our nation, the world, to urge our elected officials forward. And while I agree wholeheartedly, it seems that while there is so much to consider, what has been so unfamiliar in this struggle to work on my high holy day messages, is that it has become so increasingly difficult to discern what really matters, what’s actually happening and what the reliable sources of information are…. and how to take the first steps towards a more just, moral and equitable world from our current reality.
Listening has become harder and harder. As we are increasingly overwhelmed with dissonant messages… Over the last year, and perhaps more, we have been continually bombarded from all directions. Whether it is politics or natural disasters, international crises or concerns for justice and equality, or whether it is with real news or fake, the kind of information and the quantity is simply overwhelming. We have witnessed events around our nation while attempting to make heads or tails of the them. We have been over-loaded with information about the world we inhabit, the world we share with seven point five billion others. There is no shortage of people lamenting the headlines among the talking heads on cable and network news. The heated and challenged reality of politics in our great nation has stirred long held beliefs for many, it has ruptured relationships between long time friends, it has given license to those in mental health fields to dub the term Election Stress Disorder. Some argue the last twelve months has only exposed what has always been there. The seemingly endless onslaught of information via news, social media, written sources, neighbors, family and co-workers has continued to fuel this kind of stress.
It is becoming increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to see the good in the world around us. In the endless barrage of negativity in the headlines, we can easily turn either to despair or worse, in my estimation, to a lack of care and concern. Amidst the chaotic newsfeed including Iran, Irma, Charlottesville, Houston, North Korea, an embattled president, the Jewish identity of our beloved State of Israel, immigration, building walls while tearing others down…..all demanding our attention, requiring us to listen…to make value judgments.
But what shall we listen to? How can one even begin to discern the responsibility in the listening, in the hearkening to what is a step forward, just one step, when its so hard to see examples of good, just and right and weigh truth from fiction, real from fake?
In the story of Creation, in the Book of Genesis, we find an interesting analog to this kind of chaos. We learn that what we recognize as our world, our Earth, was chaos, it was what our tradition calls tohu vavohu - unformed and void - lacking order. As the creation story continues with the events of each day, God identifies and labels the evolving natural world around us. We find the familiar phrase from this story: וַיַּ֧רְא אֱלֹהִ֛ים אֶת־הָא֖וֹר כִּי־ט֑וֹב, often translated as: And God saw the light and that it was good. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, points out in his book, To Heal a Fractured World, that there are different ways to understand this moment in our text. He quotes the nineteenth century Rabbi, Zvi Hirsch Mecklenburg and reminds us of a deeper understanding of this simple phrase. Mecklenburg taught that the Hebrew ‘ki', translated here in the story of creation as ‘that’ is better understood and more often translated as ‘because’. Therefore, “God saw, not, ‘that it was good’ but ‘because God is good”. ( Sacks, Rabbi Jonathan. To Heal a Fractured World. p. 40.) When we read it this way, our first understanding of God, in the story of creation, is that God is able to see, to recognize and to listen to the good in the world because God is good.
Amidst the chaos, the unformed universe in disarray, God creates a world of goodness through God’s own attribute of goodness - God is able to recognize what is good, because of that same quality within. Perhaps we can too, if what we hold inside is good. This is our model of recognizing the good in our world, listening to the needs for learning and doing, to make the world better, to decipher the countless and often competing messages inundating us so that we can move towards action that is good, just, right, equitable. It begins with being able to listen, not solely with our ears, but with our whole being. Listening as a responsibility, actively so that we may engage more in our world, not less.
It sounds cliché to just say listening is the answer. We are reminded at every turn the importance of communication, whether at work, in relationships and beyond, so it may seem obvious that listening is the key to success, to moving forward. Yet, if it were so easy, maybe we’d be better at it… We listen to what is comforting, to what agrees with our already established views and beliefs. But listening, from our Jewish perspective, is not the charge to only hear and heed what suits, but rather, it is even more crucial to listen, to always listen even, or especially when we disagree. This is a responsibility.
If we only read the agreed upon sources, we aren’t really doing anything…not even listening. Being knowledgeable and “up” on the realities around us requires energy and effort. Two weeks ago, two educated professionals who are dear friends, two mothers - Lauren Alredge and Caitlin Quattromani - led me on an amazingly powerful intellectual journey. During one of my drives between the North Shore and the South, I listened to their short Ted Talk. One poignant segment of the the talk was Mrs. Alredge sharing what happened while driving her sons to school, and she said, “My younger son says to me: Mom, we don’t know anyone who voted for Trump, right?” She goes on to say, “I paused, took a deep breath, yes, we do, the Quattromani’s.” “and his response was so great, he kind of got this confused look on his face and said, but we love them!” “And I answered, yes we do!” “And then he said, but why would they vote for him.” She continued, “I remember stopping and thinking that it was really important how I answered this question. Somehow I had to honor our own family values and show respect for our friends, so I said: they think that’s the right direction for this country. And before I even got the whole sentence out of my mouth, he had moved on to the soccer game he was going to play at recess today.” ( “How our friendship survives our opposing politics.” Caitlin Quattromani and Lauran Allege - Ted Talks Daily, September 11, 2017.)
This segment, nearing the end of the talk, highlights exactly what listening, what Shmiat HaOzen - Our Jewish value of listening is all about. It is about living and honoring our own values and showing respect for those of others. It is about knowing that we disagree with those we love. These two women shared over the course of the podcast about their struggles to engage in discourse. One of them mentions the reality that over 40% of Americans report that the November 2016 election negatively impacted a personal and important relationship. These two women chose to avoid political debate and rather engage in dialogue in order to maintain their self described bi-partisan friendship. They identify moments when they may have been fearful to engage, but they chose to ask, then to listen - to dialogue, rather than allow things to fester, to boil over and fuel negative emotions. This tactic, among others, ensured they were not only listening to each other, but they were learning from one another, they were making more possible. At one moment, one of the women identifies the importance of listening to what’s unfolding around us for the sake of learning. She says, “…the most important thing about this conversation is that it happened at all. Without an open and honest dialogue between the two of us, this would have been the elephant in the room for the next four years, pun intended!”
The art of dialogue is also the art of listening. It is making sure we engage in the information, don’t shy away from what is uncomfortable, maintain a sense of respect and compassion for others’ ideas. As the speakers in this talk conclude, they mentioned that they have chosen to be willing to listen even when they disagree and therefore open themselves up to limitless learning.
The learning is, in the end, what really matters. It is, after all, the ultimate goal of our Jewish tradition as well. Being engaged in life-long learning endeavors is part of our modus operandi as Jews. Our tradition reminds us each morning in our liturgy that Talmud Torah K’neged Kulam - the Study of Torah is equal to all other mitzvot because it leads to them all. When we engage in our tradition, we cannot miss the presence of dialogue, of debate, of listening to one another, regardless of the opinion. Many of us are familiar with the constant debates in our Talmudic tradition between Hillel and Shammai, each offering different views on ritual, ethical and practical elements of Jewish life. From the value judgments on white lies, to the treatment of those seeking to learn more about Judaism and even including the type of candles to be used on Hannukah, these two great sages model for us, what Caitlin and Lauren model in their TEDtalk: That dialogue is about being genuinely curious about each other’s ideas, it is about opening ourselves up to limitless learning. In fact, one could arguably say that the entire Talmud is based disagreement. And, the Talmud doesn’t work, it loses its force if we fail to listen to each step of that disagreement, that dialogue, that discourse.
At this season, at the time of the Yamim Noraim - Days of Awe, we engage in many forms of listening. As we shared, we listen to the blasts of the shofar. We are called to recognize that these ancient and primitive sounds are a call to action, not for passive hearing, but to listen and heed their call. As Rabbi Zalman Schachter Shalom zichrono livracha taught: The root of the word shofar - the shin - pey - reish also makes the Hebrew word L’Shapeir - to improve - it is listening so that we can grow, learn and improve. We listen to the liturgy, we experience the imagery of a courtroom drama unfolding as we put ourselves on trial before the world, God - whatever is our belief - and we listen to our hearts speak truths about ourselves and our world, however uncomfortable it may be at times. It is not meant to be easy, and nor is listening, true, active and generous listening - it is a responsibility.
When we pick up a newspaper, when we turn on cable news and when we hear a fellow human being share information, it is up to us to first listen. Once we are sure we are present, open and actively listening - with our whole being - then we must do the work of vetting, of deciphering the meaning of what we are learning. How does it stir us towards action? Towards actions that are good, just and right. Using God, again, as the model from the story of Creation, if we are upholding our attribute of goodness, if the drive for which we are aiming is towards a more right, just and equitable world, then we, perhaps, are able to listen too, and see, because we, too, are good.
In a preschool room, the children are innocent, I trust we can all agree on that. They all have so much to share with their teachers, with their peers. The noise in that setting can be deafening and beautiful simultaneously. The balance that is struck by masters of that environment is the responsibility of listening. It is about a responsible listening for the needs of the students, aiming to the goal of creating a fair and loving environment, it is about accepting everyone and ensuring there is healthy structure and discipline. So too, it is with our responsibility to be active and engage in the discourse of our communities, our nation and our world. We must hear and listen to the needs of others. We must aim for as fair, just and equitable society the moment allows, we must listen to others - no matter how much we may disagree…but listen, wholly and generously. And, we must be disciplined to be able to be open to the limitless learning that follows. And finally, this responsibility of listening must stir us to action - speaking out and honoring our family values, our strongly held beliefs so that others will listen too. We must ensure those who lead and hold positions of power practice that same kind of responsible listening.
Part of our liturgy is the prayer shema koleinu - beseeching God to hear our voice in prayer. On this Rosh Hashanah, as we enter 5778, I offer the following in addition:
שמע, יי, לקולות העולם תן לנו את הכח והשכל לשמוע ללמוד ולעשות עם חסד עם אהבה ועם כבוד
Listen, O God, to the voices of the world, give us the strength, the intellect to listen, to learn and to do with compassionate kindness, with love and with respect. Amen
Shanah Tovah U’Mitukah