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Listening as a Spiritual Practice: Kol Nidre 2018/5779

Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann

A short questionnaire.

  1. Have you ever been in a meeting at work where you were so focused on what you wanted to say that you realize you are no longer listening and have no idea where the conversation is?
  2. Have you interrupted someone in the middle of their speaking? How about in the last 48 hours?
  3. Have you ever been in a situation in which a friend reaches out for comfort and even when she doesn’t ask for it, you insist on giving her your good advice?
  4. Have you ever turned off a radio or TV news story mid-way because you couldn’t tolerate the views being expressed by the person interviewed?
  5. Have you ever been in a synagogue and realized half-way through the rabbi’s sermon that you have no idea what the rabbi is saying?

I am guessing that I am not the only one in the room who got a perfect or near-perfect score on this quiz!

While there are certainly sermons worth sleeping through, I want to humbly suggest that this is a sermon you may want to listen to. Because, if you haven’t guessed already from the questions I posed, this is a sermon about listening.

We come here on Kol Nidre with unique experiences yet a common desire to be the best versions of ourselves: to be good people, great parents/grandparents, responsive friends, caring partners. Yet, despite our best intentions, we know that at least some of the time, we miss the mark. How can we be better? Do better?

I would like to suggest that a way to do teshuvah (repentance, turning), to turn towards others and return to the best versions of ourselves, is through improving the quality of our listening.

Let me first assert: despite claims to the contrary, listening is a very “Jewish” act. Yes, we know the trope — from films, books, maybe real life — of Jews as better talkers than listeners or as chronic interrupters.

But our sacred text and tradition make it clear that listening is central to spiritual living. Our core prayer is the “Shema,” hear o Israel! Listen up! The word “lishmoah” has so many profound meanings including to hear, pay attention, obey, understand.

A central act of the High Holidays is listening to the shofar. The blessing we recite is not upon the sounding of the shofar, rather “lishmoa kol shofar” — Blessed is the One who commanded us to listen to the call of the shofar.

Like other sacred acts, listening is a practice and a skill that can be developed. To become better listeners — and by extension more responsive children, parents, grandparents, friends, siblings — we may need to learn new ways of new ways of communicating, expressing concern, and being in relationship.

Tonight, I want to suggest three instructions/practices, rooted in Jewish teachings, that have been especially helpful for me in improving my listening and by extension, strengthening my relationships. I bring them to you tonight as an offering — as ideas and inspirations that might help us as we turn and return to the people we want to be.

They are: Listen without fixing, advising, or setting straight. Listen for understanding, not agreement. Listen beyond the words.

Listen without an agenda. No fixing, advising, or setting straight.

The Talmud tells a story about when Rabbi Eliezer becomes ill and his friend Rabbi Yochanan pays him a visit. The story at first seems like a lesson in ‘what not to do in a pastoral visit.’ Seeing his friend crying, Rabbi Yochanan begins a rapid fire questioning: Are you crying because of this? Are you crying because of that? Is it because you haven’t enough sustenance? Because of lack of children? And he keeps going. Finally, Rabbi Yochanan is silent. Eliezer tells him that is he is afraid of losing Rabbi Yochanan’s beauty. Admittedly, this is a strange response! Rabbi Yohanan was known in the Talmud for his physical beauty. But this can also be understood as a metaphor about the fear of dying and leaving a world filled with God’s beauty.

Rabbi Yohanan listens and affirms, “Yes. You do have reason to weep.” And then, miraculously, they weep together. After they have cried together, after he has been fully seen and heard by his friend, Rabbi Yochanan offers his hand and Rabbi Eliezer has the strength to rise.

When Rabbi Yohanan can listen to his friend’s pain, witness and affirm it, healing and transformation are present.

I thought of this story after attending a retreat in January with the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. IJS is a program that engages clergy and educators in Jewish mindfulness; each retreat involves set times for prayer, yoga, meditation, torah study and periods of silence.

This past year, I went back to the annual clergy retreat and was reminded of one of my favorite parts of IJS: “Core Groups,” small groupings of participants who came together towards the end of each day, in which people can express any thoughts, feelings, or reflections on their minds. For Core Group, we are given three instructions: No fixing, No Advising, No setting straight.

As you might imagine, these simple rules were very hard to abide by! In past retreats, some talked about ill and dying parents, lovers, or friends; others about personal relationships in jeopardy; others about troubled work environments. It was very challenging to hold back — rabbis love to give advice to other rabbis!

In January, I was in a Core Group with a woman who on the first day of the retreat found herself in tremendous emotional pain. A triggering event had unleashed what seemed like a lifetime of stored-up sadness. She came to core group and opened herself to us, sharing the pain, the hurt, the hopelessness. It was very hard to watch this person in so much pain. It took great effort on our part not to morph into cheerleaders or personal coaches, but we remembered: no fixing, no advising, no setting straight.

On the last day of the retreat, this woman reflected that our attentive, quiet listening had helped her move through the pain into a more expansive, even joyous space. In the space of feeling held and heard, healing occurred.

The experience of “core groups” — intentionally structured groups with the sole purpose of listening– is not something most of us have access to on a regular basis. At the same time, we do regularly encounter people who are struggling, who are grieving, or who are just having a hard day. And our natural inclination to fix or advise is very strong! Especially for certain people in our life whose happiness and success we are especially invested in, like our children or partners.

But as the story of Rabbi Eliezer’s illness and the rules of not fixing, advising, or setting straight teach — the ikar, the essence of listening, is presence. People don’t necessarily need our words, they need us.

Listening without an agenda to fix, advise or set straight offers a space for healing not only in others, but also in ourselves. For the more we can make space for others’ pain and brokenness, the more we can make space for tolerate the pain and brokenness in our own hearts. The more we can welcome without a need to fix others, the more we can compassionately do the same for ourselves.

Listen past Judgments. Listen for understanding, not for agreement.

In Pirkei Avot, we learn: “Aizeh hu hacham, hu lomed mi kol Adam. Who is wise? The one who learns from every person.”

This is one of the phrases that rabbis and educators rattle off proudly and often, but tonight, as we contemplate listening, I invite us to ask ourselves: How open are we to learn from others? To whom are we listening and to whom are we not?

It is a well-established observation that our listening is affected by our judgments, biases, and prejudices. Much of the time, we might not even be aware of those things that prevent us from listening and encountering another person:

Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg, a teacher and mentor, tells a story that demonstrates this well. She describes a time when she was being on a silent retreat, saying:

“The first night on retreat I notice one of the participants, a man in his early 60s, tall, slender, gray-haired, restless, full of energy… This guy looks like…an entitled, rich white Christian male. I take an immediately dislike to this man. I can’t figure out why on earth he is on this retreat. Whenever Mr. X comes into view I notice that feelings of aversion arise in me, followed by unpleasant judging thoughts. I have never spoken a word to this man, but this does not prevent me from disliking him and everything I decide he represents — especially power and arrogance….”

After days of harboring negative thoughts, Rabbi Weinberg discovers something unexpected. She recounts:

“On the last day of retreat there is a sharing. There about a hundred people on retreat, all sitting in a circle… Each person has a chance to say a few sentences. This is our first speaking after 10 days of silence… When it is my turn, I say: “this has been great. I am the rabbi of a synagogue. I feel that coming on this retreat makes me a better rabbi. I am very grateful.”

A few people after it is Mr. X. He says, [in a very thick Southern accent,] “My name is Barton Poole. I am from northern Mississippi and I have a lot in common with the rabbi.” Now I am listening. “I am a Methodist minister and I feel that this practice gives me the chance to truly walk my faith. I am very grateful.”

You can imagine what comes next. The two connect as colleagues, now that there is opening for listening.

If Rabbi Weinberg had not been forced to listen to this man’s words, her judgments and biases would have written him out of her life. Let’s consider how many times we might not even speak to or engage another person because they don’t fit into our view of what people should look like or don’t fit our conception of worldview. Yet, if we can recognize our judgments and not be ruled by them, we make more space for relationship, for our hearts being touched by others.

Kay Lindahl, founder of The Listening Center, observes that our culture holds the notion that listening necessitates agreement. Think for a second about the ways we listen to speakers, teachers, or even friends. Our brains are so occupied — evaluating, assessing, naming “I agree,” “I don’t agree,” “That’s wrong,” “That’s right.” Or we often feel a need to prove or defend our point of view. Lindahl suggests another paradigm: “Listen for understanding, not to agree with or believe.” Inquire, pay attention, be open. Try to understand where people are coming from.

As I say this, I can’t help but wonder: what would our country be today if this principle had been mainstream practice over the last few decades? Would we find ourselves in the same mess that we find ourselves in now? Yes, there are limits. I am not suggesting that we should simply “listen for understanding” to people who are racist, anti-Semitic, misogynist, homophobic. Yet there are many other people with whom we disagree that do not fit those descriptions. If we can find a way to listen for understanding, perhaps we might move towards healing and a great appreciation for our shared humanity.

The idea of listening for understanding rather than agreement is vital not only on a national scale but on a communal level as well. This year, I am going to be inviting the community into “listening for understanding” as an active practice as delve deeper in a series of activities and conversations about Israel and Palestine. Many synagogues do “falafel and hummus” Israel programming- keeping things light and on the surface to avoid hard conversations. We hope to take things in a different direction at SAJ, to have real and honest conversations as a community through guest speakers, presentations, and classes that focus on Israel’s history and current realities. As we do so, I invite us to listen for understanding, to stay open-minded and stay in the conversation even when it is hard.

Listen Beyond the words.

In the Book of Kings, God appears to Solomon in a dream and asks him what he needs to step into his new role as King. Solomon says: “Grant me a Lev Shomea,” which literally means “listening heart.” The phrase is only used this one time in the Hebrew bible.

It is not clear what “lev shomea” means in the torah and many people have sought to interpret this phrase. To me, a Lev Shomea indicates the ability to listen not only with our ears, not only with our minds, but also with our whole selves.

This model of “Lev Shomea” invites us to listen beyond words order to understand what is happening for another. Listening beyond the words asks us that we bring a spirit of inquiry to our interactions, a digging beneath the surface than can bring about new possibilities of understanding and trust.

Sometimes, with persistence, we can acquire a listening heart.

I share a personal story: I remember when my son Nadiv was quite yound. There was a time when he refused to go down the stairs in our house without being carried. Meanwhile, I had just read a parenting book that instructed: “Do not do anything for your kids that they can do themselves.” We were at a crossroads. “Nadiv, it’s time to walk down the steps.” He proceeded to throw a tantrum. Tired, frustrated, I could feel my whole body tensing up. I coached, “Nadiv, you are big boy now, you can do this.” By this time, his tears were uncontrollable.

Against my better judgment and throwing the wisdom of that parenting book out the proverbial window, I carried him down the stairs and comforted him for a few minutes. Whereas most days I might chalk this as a parenting fail and move on, I decided to inquire. “Nadiv, why don’t you want to go down the stairs?” I asked. After a few questions, trying to discern his motives, I discovered that there was in fact something else going on. “Are you afraid,” he nodded his head and said, “Yes I am afraid.” In a flash, my frustration was replaced by empathy, my anger replaced by love. I held him and comforted him. The next few days, I carried him down the stairs. A weeks later, he began walking down them all by himself.

When we stop and make space, when we dig deeper, when listen beyond the words, we can tune in to what is going in another person’s heart and soul. When we do this, we act with a lev shomea, which enables intimacy and deep understanding.

This kind of listening is a tool we can bring to our relationship with others. It is also a gift we can give ourselves. Much of the time, we are busy and distracted and not in touch with what’s weighing on our hearts. What if we were to give ourselves the space and the time for silence, for quiet reflection to help us discern what is at the heart of the matter for us? What is it that we need and that we seek in this moment? How might we cultivate a lev shomea for ourselves?

***

On Yom Kippur, as we consider the ways in which we can turn towards others and grow into the best version of ourselves, let us consider improving our listening as an opportunity for teshuvah. I invite us into an active practice of listening without an agenda; listening for understanding and not agreement; listening beyond the words. Choose one of these three that you can focus on and cultivate — see what transforms.

Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad. Listening is sacred. Through listening, we can hold and be held. We can expand our ways of thinking. We can grow as parents, children, friends, lovers, and human beings.

Baruch Atah Adonai, Shomea Tefillah. Blessed is the One who listens to our prayers.

Blessed are we who listen.

Notes:

Story of Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yochanan: Talmud Berachot 5b

Pirkei Avot 4:1

Story from Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg, Suprisingly Happy, White River Press, 2010.

Kay Lindahl, The Sacred Art of Listening, Skylight Paths Publishing, 2002.

Lev Shomea, 1 Kings 3:9

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