On Yom Kippur I told the story of a woman who gets a new hearing aid. For the 1st time in years she can hear everything clear as a bell. She comes back a few weeks later to the audiologist for a checkup who asks, “Tell me, is your family excited?”
She replies, “My family doesn’t know. I sit there and smile like I did before. But since getting the hearing aid, I have changed my will 3 times.”
Seeing is important, but for Jews, the ability to hear is most important. The Talmud tells the story of the Roman emperor who went to one of the great rabbis and asked to see Gd. The rabbi took the emperor outside and told him to look at the sun. “That’s impossible. I’ll go blind.”
The rabbi responded, “If you can’t look at the sun which is merely a creation of Gd, how much more so can you not actually see Gd.”
Gd tells Moses (Ex. 33:20): Lo yirani adam vachai, “No human can see Me and live.” We can’t see Gd, but we can hear Him. That’s why Shema Yisrael, “Hear O Israel,” is one of our 2 most important prayers. It’s the time to open ourselves up to hear Gd’s message. In Hellenistic culture sight was most important—and therefore, beauty was the ultimate value. For Christians, under Greek influence, Gd in word became flesh—someone you can see. For Jews, Gd’s word is sacred—something to be heard. We hear the Torah read and try to uncover its treasury of wisdom.
So often in life we become hard of hearing. I’m reminded of the story of a man who brings his dog to the vet, telling him, “This is a talking dog.”
The vet is skeptical, but asks, “What’s the problem.”
“Watch this,” says the man. He tells the dog, “Fetch,” and the dog opens his mouth saying, “It’s much too hot in here. I have fur, not skin like you people. And while I’m at it, why do I have to eat that lousy dog food? Look at the wonderful food you eat. And how about walking me more often? I’m bored.”
The vet is amazed. “I’ve never seen a dog do that. So what’s the problem?”
The man answers, “My dog is hard of hearing. I said fetch, not kvetch!”
Why is hearing so important? The ability to speak and to hear is what makes us human.
So why do we too often have such trouble hearing? Blame it on the Tower of Babel in today’s parsha. All humanity spoke one language. They decided to build a tower to challenge Gd. Gd was disappointed and mixed up their languages so they wouldn’t understand each other. He then scattered them across the world. If people can’t understand each other, they can’t conspire to challenge Gd. But without understanding one another, it’s also hard to work for a better world.
I must admit, I don’t have an easy time with languages—as do many Americans. It took me a long time to attain proficiency in Hebrew—and I’m still working at it. I’m in awe of the immigrants who come to America and in no time are fluent in English. In the early 1990’s many Russian Jews came to Atlanta and, as most of you know, I ran many special programs for them. Although my father was born in the Soviet Union, he came over as a baby and never spoke Russian—his 1st language was Yiddish—and so I never picked up any Russian words. But I loved the courage and enthusiasm of Russian Jews. I once invited a Russian family who had just come to America for Shabbos dinner. We communicated mostly with hand gestures. When the father saw our Hanukkah Menorah on the shelf, he pointed to it excitedly and said: Baruch Ata Hashemi Elokeynu Melech ha-olam hamotzi lechem min ha-aretz. Wrong bracha, but it didn’t matter. He was communicating to me that he was a Jew, and, of course, Hebrew was the language.
My father’s parents never learned much English even though by the time I was a teenager, they had lived in America longer than they had lived in Russia. I used to visit my father’s mother every Shabbos on the way home from shule. She didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Yiddish, but somehow we understood each other.
How different it is today that even when we speak the same language, we don’t understand each other. Grandparents ask their grandchildren what a bff is—best friend forever. Grandchildren ask their grandparents what it means to dial a phone. My grandchildren never saw a dial phone in their lives.
Sometimes even if you’re the same generation, you don’t understand each other. When I 1st met Cheryl (from S. Africa) we sometimes had a hard time understanding each other. Do you know where to park your car? In the gaa-rage! The spare tire is in the boot. If you need something to help you see in the dark you reach for a torch—we call it a flashlight. What does it mean when Cheryl says, “See you just now?” I used to think it meant, “I’ll be right there.” But no; it means, “See you later!”
There’s a 2nd reason we sometimes don’t hear—we’re distracted and not really listening. Did anybody see the commercial on TV for that new cell phone—the one that allows you to talk on the phone and surf the web at the same time. In the commercial a man is playing with his phone, when his wife calls “Do you remember that it’s our anniversary?” “Of course I remember”, he lies. And while he’s talking, he scrambles to make a restaurant reservation online on his phone. You can now talk on the phone while you’re checking your bank account, buying a plane ticket, even watching entertainment on Youtube. You can do anything except focus on what the person speaking is saying to you. Our technology allows us to be alone together!
This brings me to a 3rd reason we don’t listen. We don’t listen because we’re too busy speaking. It was an ancient Greek thinker who taught, “We have 2 ears and one mouth so that we’ll listen twice as much as we speak.” A rabbi could have easily said that. Stephen Covey said, “Seek to understand before you seek to be understood.”
We’re now in the throes of the Presidential campaign. It’s more and more amazing to me with each campaign how negative it gets—sometimes vicious. I saw it with Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich in the primaries and I see it now in Obama’s ads. It’s remarkable how a candidate can continue to accuse his opponent of something after it has been repeatedly disproved. In this campaign we have 2 competing visions of America. That should be the focus—not whether Romney wants to throw your grandmother off a cliff or kill the great menace Big Bird. We need to tone down the hyperbole and listen to each other.
To be a human being is to listen to other human beings. And the higher state of being human is to listen to Gd. When the Jews were at Mt. Sinai and Gd spoke to them and they became frightened. They told Moses, “You listen to Gd and tell us what He said.” In the famous story of Elijah, the prophet runs from the wicked King Ahab who wants to kill him. He flees to Mt. Sinai and is overwhelmed by a display of nature’s fury. As the Book of Kings I (19:11–12) records: “And Gd was passing and a great and powerful wind, smashing mountains and braking rocks went before Gd; but Gd was not in the wind; and after the wind came an earthquake; but Gd was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake came a fire; but Gd was not in the fire; and after the fire came a still small voice.”
How can we hear Gd? Gd can be found in the still small voice that resonates within our souls. If you’re perfectly still and focus, you may hear the voice of Gd. Sometimes we hear Gd as our conscience—that voice that tells us before or even after we did something what’s right and what’s wrong. When we’re tempted to go down the wrong path, a voice deep in our soul tells us to change our direction.
Sometimes we hear Gd in the voice of encouragement giving us hope during difficult times. It’s Gd saying, “Don’t worry, though you walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I am with you.” Sometimes we hear Gd as the voice of insight and wisdom, the voice that guides us when we’re confused about a difficult decision. And sometimes we hear Gd in moments of awe—whether by the ocean or in the mountains, watching a sunset or walking through the woods or listening to a beautiful piece of music. Gd is always speaking to us, if only we would listen.
The generation of the Tower of Babel needed to be confused and dispersed because their common goal was to defeat Gd. Our world has once again become united in a common language—this time it’s the language of technology like email, texts and tweets. We need to do a better job of listening to each other. And if we do, perhaps we’ll hear the voice of Gd as well. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis