SHMINI ATZERET 5779
A psychologist was asked by a friend, “Tell me, how can you listen hour after hour, day after day, week after week, to people who pour out their frustrations and tales of woe from your couch”
To which the psychologist shrugs his shoulders and says, “Who listens?”
Yes, who really listens anymore? We all know arrogant and opinionated people who refuse to listen to anyone. Then there are those who are so preoccupied with themselves—with what they want and with what they think they need—that they’re deaf to the rest of the world. They’re so full of themselves, there’s no room for anyone else in their lives. This was quite evident at last Thursday’s senate hearings with Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Neither side really listened to the testimony or to each other. It was just politics as usual.
And then there’s a 3rd category to which most of us belong: those who are so busy listening to words that don’t really deserve a hearing—to much of the nonsense we hear in the media and social media these days—that we have little time or patience for words that could make a difference.
The Torah (Lev. 19:18) commands us: V’ahavta l’reyacha kamocha (Love your fellow as yourself). Rabbi Akiva (Yerushalmi Nedarim 9:4) adds: Zeh klal gadol baTorah (This is the greatest principle in the Torah). Although it sounds simple, loving your fellow human being can be the hardest thing in the world to do.
Cheryl pointed out to me Lorraine Murray’s column in last week’s paper (AJC 9/21/18) that connects love and listening called, “Just listening is a big part of loving someone.” She’s right of course. Let me share some of her thoughts with you which I think are appropriate in these moments before Yizkor. Murray writes: Listening is a big part of cherishing another person, while ignoring them conveys the message, “You’re not that important to me.”
It’s shocking to see how many people are checking their phones even while conversing, while others are biding their time to jump in with their 2 cents. As soon as you’ve closed your mouth on your last word, these folks grab the conversational ball and run with it. Sometimes they engage in the “you think you’ve got it bad” conversational technique. And so if you mention you’re slated for some scary surgery next week, they’ll jump in with a story about an operation they had 10 years ago, which, they assure you, was much trickier than yours.
It happens so often. Someone I know was telling another she was recovering from radiation therapy for cancer. This person heard the “c” word and couldn’t resist telling her a harrowing tale about a relative, who had a similar treatment and then died shortly afterwards. “Are you kidding?” I thought. Sound familiar?
Another less-than-loving conversational technique is spinning out solutions—telling them what to do—instead of just listening. Rabbi Yisroel Reisman tells about the advice he gives to new grooms before the wedding. He tells them: If your wife comes home and tells you what a hard day she had. She missed her bus and was late for work and her boss yelled at her. She worked for hours on a project and the computer crashed and she lost all that work…Don’t say to her, “Why didn’t you leave 5 minutes earlier for work? You wouldn’t have missed your buss and your boss wouldn’t have yelled at you. And why didn’t you save your work on the computer every few minutes?”
Don’t tell her what to do or what she should have done. She knows that. Rather just listen and repeat back what she says: “Oh, you missed your bus and your boss yelled at you. You must have been so stressed out. And you lost hours of work on the computer; that must have been so frustrating. I’m so sorry.”
Tell her this and you’ll be amazed at how much she will appreciate you.
Sometimes we just need to lay our burdens on another person’s shoulders. We want to tell them about our week…a trip to the ER with a weird throbbing pain in our foot…a water heater that died and sent a stream across the hardwood floors…or a car that keeps stalling.
You long to hear the golden words, “What a tough week! I’m so sorry for you.”—rather than recommendations for a doctor, a floor guy or a mechanic. Sometimes it’s really difficult listening to another person without succumbing to the temptation to interrupt them, since we have this great story we’re dying to share—or perhaps there’s a factual error we feel compelled to correct. This is the time to quiet our minds, breathe deeply and show that we’re truly present.
Kohelet (4:9-10)—which we read on Sukkot—describes friendship this way: “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up.” Sometimes people fall down because they feel life’s woes are crushing them—and rescuing them may mean just letting them unburden themselves, while we remain silent.
What about Gd’s voice? He’s also trying to get through to us, but often we block Him out because he speaks to us in silence…and we may be soaking up the news, gabbing on the phone, glued to a Netflix show, checking texts or Facebook. Even if we sometimes don’t listen, Gd is always there.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks tells us: There is something profoundly spiritual about listening. It’s the most effective form of conflict resolution. Many things can create conflict, but what sustains it is the feeling that we have not been listened to—that they have not heard our pain…Job, who has suffered unjustly, is unmoved by the arguments of his comforters. It is not that he insists on being right: what he wants is to be heard.
Listening lies at the very heart of relationship. It means that we are open to the other, that we respect him/her, that their perceptions and feelings matter to us. And so a good parent listens to their child. A good employer listens to his/her workers. A good company listens to its customers. A good leader listens to those he leads. Listening doesn’t mean agreeing but it does mean caring. Listening is the climate in which love and respect grow.
Rabbi Sacks continues: In Judaism we believe that our relationship with Gd is an ongoing tutorial in our relationships with other people. How can we expect Gd to listen to us if we fail to listen to our spouse, our children, or those affected by our work? And how can we expect to encounter Gd if we have not learned to listen?
A man goes to the doctor and tells him that he’s worried because he thinks his wife has a hearing problem that she won’t admit. So he asks the doctor what he can do to find out how serious the problem really is.
The doctor says, “I’ll give you a test you can use, and if she fails the test you’ll know you’d better bring her in immediately for a check-up. Tonight when you go home, from the front door ask, ‘Hi honey, what’s for dinner?’ If there’s no answer, go into the house and ask again, ‘Hi honey, what’s for dinner?’ If there still is no answer, walk right up behind her and ask again, ‘Hi honey, what’s for dinner?’ If she doesn’t hear even that, you know she has a serious problem.”
So the man goes home that night and follows the doctor’s suggestion. He walks in the door and says, “Hi honey, what’s for dinner?” No answer. He goes further into the house and asks again. No answer. So he walks right up behind her and says, “Hi honey, what’s for dinner?”
She turns to him and yells, “Fish, I told you 3 times!”
Crowds are moved by great speakers, but lives are changed by great listeners. In the end, the key to loving another person is the same as loving Gd—we must give others the gift of our full attention. That’s what our loved ones we remember today did. Our parents’ lives, our spouse’s lives revolved around our lives. We were their lives. Everything we did, every accomplishment, every disappointment was also theirs. When something important happened they were the ones we called to share it with—and they listened.
May we in this world that is so distracting…put aside our phones, tablets and computers long enough to give the ones we love who are still here our full and undivided attention and listen. Amen!