The Art of Listening: Rosh Hashanah Sermon

This d'var Torah was delivered by Rabbi Adina Allen at the Berkeley Community High Holy Day Services, 5777 / 2016

Today I want to talk about listening. About the importance of learning how to really hear- others, ourselves and God. 

The act of listening feels particularly important and especially challenging this year in the midst of a contentious and heated time in our country. As we gear up for another presidential election, tensions are running high and passion is flowing. An election is a time of transition; the ability to elect a new leader presents us with an opportunity to do things a new way. In order to imagine the future we’d like to see we start to pay attention to all the ways in which we have been disappointed and unsatisfied by the status quo.

On all sides of the political spectrum voices are calling out, speaking their suffering, longings, fears and dreams. The higher the stakes the higher the volume at which we speak. It can feel at times like we are all so busy calling out that we have lost the capacity to listen.

And yet, there is perhaps no task more essential to the work of this season than that of listening. For without listening, how can I hear the ways in which I’ve wronged you? The ways I’ve strayed from my truest self? The ways I’ve been closed to the call of the Divine?

During these days we are required to make teshuva, commonly translated as repentance, but more accurately understood as “return.” Circling back to the times in which we have missed the mark, we scan our year and search our souls to let surface those moments we need to return to in order to repair. So often the places that require healing trace back to times in which we did not allow ourselves to listen. Because we had already made up our minds.
Because we were scared.
Because we were too busy planning what we would say next.
Because we were closed off to the possibility of being changed.

Advocating for others to listen to us is easy. Listening to those different from us is hard. Just try tuning in to a political speech by the candidate you aren’t voting for. It requires that we admit the existence of a reality other than our own.

Author Mark Nepo describes listening as “a personal pilgrimage…With each trouble that stalls us and each wonder the lifts us, we are asked to put down our conclusions and feel and think anew.” Put down our conclusions. Feel and think anew. That is exactly our task during this season of change and transformation. And during such a heated and pivotal time in our country it’s never been more vital.

The story of Hannah, which we just read as our Haftorah portion, offers profound teachings in the importance -- and the challenges of -- listening. One major challenge is to get ourselves enough out of the way in order to make space  for  the person in front of us. Once we create this space, we can begin to hear the person’s words, because we are more focused on them than on ourselves.

Hannah is not listened to,  not even by the person closest to her, her husband Elkanah. Barren, Hannah yearns desperately for a child such that she weeps and refuses to eat. Elkanah can’t hear her pain. His response in this time of distress: Am I not better to you than ten sons According to some commentators, these words can be heard as attempting to comfort Hannah, assuring her that her barrenness is not an issue for him. I hear Elkanah consumed by his own needs and feelings. He offers a solution with himself at the center - that Hannah be happy with him as her husband - rather than address the pain she is feeling . He is unable to hear -- unwilling to bear -- Hannah’s experience.  Unable to take himself out of the way, Elkanah can’t make space for the reality of the person before him.

This dynamic is one that pervades our discourse. We can become so consumed by our own views that we fail to listen to those who don’t share our perspective. But when suffering and longing go unacknowledged the chasm between us deepens. This is true for whether in our country, our community, or, as in Hannah’s case, in our own family.

I heard an amazing story on NPR’s This American Life. Following the passing of California’s Prop 8 in 2008, which nullified the amendment rendering same-sex marriage legal, the Los Angeles LGBT Center, shocked and dismayed at the setback, tried something completely new. They embarked on a campaign to engage on a one-to-one basis with to those who voted against gay marriage. Dave Fleischer, one of the heads of the campaign remarked, “I've been doing political work my whole adult life. And conventional wisdom among political practitioners is you don't reach out to the people who are against you.”

In trying this experiment, they learned an important lesson: stop talking. Start listening. In the words of Henry David Thoreau, “The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when one asked me what I thought, and attended to my answer.” Rather than try to convince voters by putting forth their views on the issue, the organizers took themselves out of the way so as to understand the thinking, fears, longings, and beliefs of those who had voted against gay marriage. They listened to voters and, in turn, were listened to.

In a world where it is almost unheard of for someone to shift their position on a hot button political issue, this campaign did just that. Before talking to the canvassers, 47% of these voters supported gay marriage, a year later it was 62%. A total growth of 15%. 

Listening is a powerful, transformative act, it allows us to make space for the humanity of the other  to be seen and felt. It creates the opportunity for empathy.

Ralph G. Nichols,founder of the International Listening Association explains why, “The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.” Listening is the root of authentic relationship. Because they were listened to, these voters were open to changing their minds. In the framework of philosopher Martin Buber, listening is what allows us to develop an I-thou, rather than an I-it relationship. He described listening as “Something we do with our full selves by sensing and feeling what another is trying to convey” so that together we can remove the barrier between us. In this case, the barrier of homophobia dissolved through an authentic listening relationship.

The act of listening can seem easy on the surface. We just open our ears. But true listening is not the passive act that simple hearing is. Listening to another means allowing another to be fully who they are in the present moment, whether they share our views or not. The act of listening opens us up to take in an experience different from our own. Whether we agree or not, if we are really listening, we internalize the experience of another and are opened into empathy. In true listening heart touches heart and we are changed. That is why the Shema - the central prayer in Judaism which calls us to Listen! leads directly into the V’ahavta, the prayer which calls upon us to love. Listening opens us to loving.

The inverse is also true. When we don’t listen, we are more apt to act harshly and unjustly. Unheard by Elkanah, Hannah turns to God. Entering the Temple with weeping eyes and a heavy spirit her heart overflows in sadness and she prays. The text reads, “she prayed to herself: her lips moved but her voice could not be heard.” Eli, the priest, watches on and mistakes Hannah’s tear-filled prayer for intoxicated mumbling. Castigating Hannah Eli yells, “How long will you go on with your drunkenness?!”

Sometimes listening requires us to get quiet enough to make out what’s being whispered by those unable -- or unwilling -- to declare their words loudly. Because they fear for their safety, because their words have been misconstrued, or because, like Hannah, their words have gone unheard so many times before.

How do those with privilege help to lift up the voices of those on the margins of our society who may be afraid to speak?

Often what we most need to hear requires a radically different sort of listening. How can we train ourselves to listen to that which doesn’t speak in words: the mountains, the ocean, the land on which we live? Untold wisdom nestles in every part of creation, it is up to us to listen.“Listen to the trees as they sway in the wind” writes author Vera Nazarian. “Their leaves are telling secrets. Their bark sings songs of olden days as it grows around the trunks. And their roots give names to all things. Their language has been lost. But not the gestures.”

To truly listen demands that we develop the capacity to hear the words that aren’t being said, or that are being said in a way that we are not used to hearing. It is something that, as Buber said, we do with our full selves, through the quality of our attention and the willingness of our spirit.

In this season we make teshuva, repair, ben adam l’makom - between ourselves and the Divine  and ben adam l’havero - between ourselves and our fellow humans. We are called to this task by the sounding of the shofar. Every day during Elul, the Hebrew month leading up to Rosh Hashanah, the shofar pierces the air, vibrating our bones and calling our souls to attention. Remarkably, the mandate is not to blow the shofar, but to hear its sound. Its haunting cry beyond words meant to awaken us. Maimonides, the great Jewish philosopher teaches that “Though blowing the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah is commanded in the Torah, there is a hint in it. As if to say, ‘wake up sleepy ones from your slumber.'" 

The act of listening to the shofar is meant to call us to attention. This year, may it’s sound unclog our being so that we may be expanded, deepened, rearranged. May it beckon us to return to those stuck places in ourselves, and help us to listen with fresh ears to the one before us, to hear what we couldn’t - or wouldn’t - before. And may this help mend the broken places within our own lives and may it help to bring healing to the world.

Kein yehi ratzon, may it be so!