People Hearing without Listening
Rabbi David Kalb is the director of OTS’s Jewish Learning Center
“People talking without speaking. People hearing without listening. People writing songs that voices never share. No one dared. Disturb the sound of silence”. (“The Sound of Silence” by Paul Simon, recorded by Simon & Garfunkel on the album “Wednesday Morning 3 AM”)
The Torah reading for the first day of Rosh Hashanah comes from Bereishit (Genesis 21:1 to 34). For years, Avraham (Abraham) and Sarah try to get pregnant, to continue the Brit (the Covenant) they began with God.
After struggling with infertility for years, Sarah tells Avraham to have relations with her handmaid Hagar, who then gives birth to Yishmael. Miraculously, 14 years later when they are much older, Avraham and Sarah finally have a son, Yitzchak. All is well. Then one day, וַתֵּ֨רֶא שָׂרָ֜ה אֶת־בֶּן־הָגָ֧ר הַמִּצְרִ֛י אֲשֶׁר־יָֽלְדָ֥ה לְאַבְרָהָ֖ם מְצַחֵֽק “And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had born to Avraham mocking”. (Bereishit 21:9) Yishmael was mocking Yitzchak. The Hebrew term for mocking is “metzachek”. “Metzachek” is an interesting word. Metzachek is typically poorly translated as mocking, making sport, laughing, merry making with Yitzchak. These translations give the impression that Yishmael is making fun of Yitzchak, being a poor influence on him or truly mistreating Yitzchak. However, that is not what metzachek means.
Read the word metzachek out loud and listen to the word carefully, metzachek. You can almost hear the word Yitzchak in the word metzachek. What is the meaning of the word metzachek? That Yishmael wants to be Yitzchak. His desire: To take Yitzchak’s place. His goal: To be the Covenantal child. To receive the inheritance.
That is why Sarah says גָּרֵ֛שׁ הָֽאָמָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את וְאֶת־בְּנָ֑הּ כִּ֣י לֹ֤א יִירַשׁ֙ בֶּן־הָֽאָמָ֣ה הַזֹּ֔את עִם־בְּנִ֖י עִם־יִצְחָֽק – “Drive out this handmaid and her son, for the son of this handmaid shall not inherit with my son, with Isaac.” (Bereishit 21:10)
How does Avraham react? וַיֵּרַע הַדָּבָר מְאֹד, בְּעֵינֵי אַבְרָהָם “This thing that Sarah said was grievous in his eyes.” (Bereishit 21:11)
The Torah is indicating that Avraham is pained in his eyes. Not in his ears, It is saying that Avraham sees but does not listen. Avraham is distressed when Sarah says this. At this emotional time, God speaks to Avraham: כֹּל אֲשֶׁר תֹּאמַר אֵלֶיךָ שָׂרָה, שְׁמַע בְּקֹלָה “Everything that Sarah says to you, listen to her voice.” (Bereishit 21:12)
Let’s repeat God’s language, Shema bekola (Listen to her voice). What does Avraham do? , וַיַּשְׁכֵּם אַבְרָהָם בַּבֹּקֶר וַיִּקַּח-לֶחֶם וְחֵמַת מַיִם וַיִּתֵּן אֶל-הָגָר, “And Avraham arose early, and took bread and water and gave it to Hagar and the child and sent them away.” (Bereishit 21:14)
Did you follow what happened? God did not say, “Do what Sarah said.” God did not tell Avraham to get up early, pack some food and water and send Hagar and Yishmael away. God said, “Listen to Sarah’s voice.” That is the one thing Avraham does not do. He does not listen. Avraham actually never does that! God said, “Listen to Sarah”. Instead of listening to Sarah, Avraham makes provisions for Hagar and Yishmael and sends them away. What was Avraham doing here? Was he problem solving? Have you ever noticed that whenever we get into “problem solving mode”, we rarely solve any problems. We actually create a few extra problems. You know how I know? I am a big problem solver. When I should be listening, I problem solve.
Of course Sarah said, “Drive out this Handmaid and her son”. Sarah said, “For this son of the handmaid shall not inherit with my son, with Yitzchak”. Perhaps because she feared her son’s covenantal rights slipping away, she articulated some horrible thought to Avraham. That may have been the first thing that came into her mind and out of her mouth, while in her heart, maybe, just maybe, Sarah would never wish to treat Hagar and Yishmael in this way. Perhaps if she had the chance to think it over, she would have said something different. Maybe she was just very raw at this moment, and needed someone to listen.
We all sometimes say terrible things, and may even suggest wanting to do unkind acts when we are under tremendous stress — statements that we often regret later on. In these moments, we need someone to listen, not necessarily to act on our words. God told Avraham to listen to everything Sarah said, not do what Sarah said.
Remember God’s words to Avraham, כֹּל אֲשֶׁר תֹּאמַר אֵלֶיךָ שָׂרָה, שְׁמַע בְּקֹלָה “Everything that Sarah says to you, listen to her voice.” (Bereishit 21:12) Now what do we do after the Torah service? We perform the mitzvah of shofar. It is interesting to consider how we fulfill the mitzvah of shofar.
Is the mitzvah to blow the shofar or to listen to the shofar? The mitzvah is to listen to the shofar, according to the Mishnah Torah, Hilchot Shofar 1:1. Furthermore, what is the bracha (the blessing) on the mitzvah of shofar: “Baruch Atah Hashem Elokeinu Melekh Ha-olam, Asher Kidshanu B’mitzvotav V’tzivanu, Lishmoa Kol Shofar”. (Blessed are You, Ruler of the Universe, Who has Sanctified us with your commandments, and has commanded us, to listen to the voice of the shofar.)
This is similar to what God said to Avraham, “shema b’kola” (listen to her voice). As mentioned, after reading a Torah text about not listening, we perform the mitzvah of shofar, which if you think about it, is an exercise in listening.
When we listen to people, it is important to treat it like a mitzvah. We need to put ourselves in the right frame of mind. When we listen to the shofar, we are not permitted to make an interruption. The same should be true in our listening to people. We cannot interrupt. Just as we focus on each note, all 100 notes of the shofar blowing, we must concentrate on each word that a person says to us.
It is not just the mitzvah of shofar that demonstrates the value of listening in Judaism. Listening is central to our religious experience. There are other spiritual moments where listening plays an important role. Let me share just one, which had a profound effect on me.
When we enter a shiva home, a house of mourning, and come before a mourner, we are not permitted to speak to the mourner until they speak to us. According to the Shulchan Aruch, Hilchot Neecheem Avelim, 376:1. What is the halakha (the law’s) intention? It is directing us to listen to the mourner. While this law is specifically about shiva and the mourner, philosophically it can be applied to other times of sadness, death and tragedy.
I travelled to Pittsburgh just days after the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue. I came as a rabbi, to be there for people. To show solidarity. Many rabbis, priests, ministers, imams and other clergy were there as well. You know what we did? We listened.
When tragedies happen, there is a desire to understand why they occured. Answers are difficult to come by. People inadvertently provide meaningless or hurtful suggestions. At Tree of Life, instead of attempting to offer wisdom, we came before the mourners as listeners.
I attended the funeral of Cecil and David Rosenthal. You might remember their story. Cecil and David had Fragile X syndrome, a genetic condition that causes a range of developmental disabilities. Cecil and David loved going to services. They went every Shabbat. They sat in the back of the synagogue, greeting everyone as they entered. It is possible that as the gunman came in, they welcomed him and wished him a Shabbat shalom, just before he murdered them.
As I walked out of the funeral, I saw my colleague, Rabbi Jonathan Berkun. We were students together at the Hartman Institute Rabbinic Leadership Initiative, a professional development program for North American rabbis from all the movements of Judaism, to study together in Jerusalem. Jonathan is the son of Rabbi Alvin Berkun, ZTL, who was the Rabbi Emeritus of Tree of Life. Jonathan grew up at Tree of Life and he spent a lot of time with Cecil and David. When I first approached Jonathan, I said nothing. I just listened, and then I hugged him.
These spiritual examples of listening in our tradition need to transform us and make us better listeners. Easier said than done. No one listens. I am no better. However, we all need to strive to improve.
We need to listen to our friends and family. We need to listen to the people we work with. For those of us who are students and teachers, we need to listen to each other. As different types of Jews, whether we identify as Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Jewish Renewal, Jewish Humanist, Orthodox, Ashkenazi, Sephardi, we need to listen to each other. In Israel’s quest for peace, security, unity and justice for all, everyone needs to listen to each other. Israelis and Diaspora Jews need to listen to each other. Americans with different political perspectives, Republican and Democrat, Liberal and Conservative, need to listen to each other. As citizens of the world, we need to listen.
Rosh Hashanah is a day focused on praying to God. Prayer is about speaking to God. When we pray, do we not need to listen to God. However, as spiritual beings, we have to become better listeners.
Listening opens us up to miraculous possibilities. Eventually, we go beyond listening. It gives us deep feelings and vision. “Once in a while you can get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right” (“Scarlet Begonias ” by Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter, recorded by the Grateful Dead on the album “From Mars Hotel”).
As we listen to the blasts of the shofar this Rosh Hashanah, let us not only listen to the remaining blasts of the shofar. Let the experience of hearing the shofar transform us into the best possible listeners.
This article was written as part of the “Journeys” series for Tishrei 5782