Friday, December 15, 2017

Parashat Mikess: Listening

A Message for Parashat Mikess 2017
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And the brothers said to one another, “Alas, we are guilty for our brother, whose mortal distress we saw when he pleaded with us and we did not listen. That is why this distress has overtaken us.” … And they did not know that Yosef was listening… (Bereshit 42:22-23)

Defenselessly trapped in a dungeon, Yosef’s brothers finally reflected upon their past decision to cast him into a pit. Thinking that no one else was listening as they spoke to one another, the brothers remembered Yosef’s piercing cries at that time. They expressed regret for the way that they had callously ignored his pleas for help. The brothers’ own experience of being unheard by the Egyptian viceroy had awakened them to a decades-old mistake. Ironically, however, that viceroy – their brother Yosef – was now listening to them.

And Reuven heard, and he came to the rescue and said, “We must not take his life!” (37:21)
In contrast to the others, Yosef’s oldest brother Reuven had “heard” at that time. He had therefore attempted to rescue Yosef. And now, as the brothers nervously discussed the situation, Reuven’s voice rang out the loudest:
“Didn’t I say to you, ‘Do not sin against the boy?’ And you would not listen!” (42:22)
He charged his brothers of the sin of ignoring more than Yosef. Reuven accused them of not hearing his own voice, as well. He accused his brothers of not listening.
* * * *
The famed humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers described his passion for “hearing deeply.” He explained the experience of hearing the words, thoughts, feeling tones, personal meaning, and even the meaning that is below the conscious intent of the speaker. Rogers described the special occasions upon which his listening led to the discovery of a deep human cry that lay buried far below the surface of the person. He imagined the emotions of the person when they are finally heard, and wrote:

In such moments I have had the fantasy of a prisoner in a dungeon, tapping out day after day a Morse code message, “Does anybody hear me? Is anybody there?” And finally, one day he hears some faint tappings which spell out “Yes.”

Rogers tasked all people to listen carefully to others and to decipher the faint messages that emanate from their dungeons.[1]

The well-known psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl often told the story about a woman who had once called him at three o’clock in the morning, during her bout with thoughts of suicide. He talked with her for a half hour about her choice, until she agreed to come in and meet in person with him later that morning. She then told Frankl that it wasn’t his arguments that had helped her pull through her crisis, but rather the simple fact that even after he’d been awakened in the middle of the night, he had listened patiently and encouraged her. His care and kindness – his listening –  had inspired her to give life another chance.[2]

The art of listening, however, is often necessary in order to hear even our own voices

R. Yaakov Moshe Harlap z”l thus interpreted the depth of Am Yisrael’s declaration “We will do and we will hear” (Shemot 24:7) at Sinai:

An animal also hears, but does not listen. A human being listens, and the differences among people depends on the quality of their listening. In proclaiming “We will do and we will hear,” the Israelites elevated themselves to be listeners; in other words, we will hear, and we will listen to the act itself.

According to R. Harlap, Am Yisrael’s commitment to “do and hear” represented the mature determination to become attentive to their own deeds.[3]

The Talmud (Taanit 21a) tells about R. Yohanan and his friend Ilfa, who had studied together at the bet midrash. During a time of famine, the two friends left the midrash in search of a job. Setting out on their journey, they stopped to eat in front of a rickety wall. R. Yohanan then overheard a conversation between two angels who were angered at the friends’ decision to leave and therefore considered toppling the wall upon them. Realizing that only he had heard the conversation, R. Yohanan took internalized the message and retraced his steps to the midrash. Years later, Ilfa returned with great wealth and discovered that R. Yohanan had subsequently been appointed to the post of rosh ha-yeshivah.

R. Mordekhai Sabato suggested that both Ilfa and R. Yohanan could have potentially heard the voices of the angels. Only R. Yohanan had heard their voices, however, because only he was listening. Whereas Ilfa had made up his mind regarding his future endeavors in the marketplace, R. Yohanan was uncertain. He was still searching for the proper path in life. He was listening.[4]
* * * *
The Torah’s description of the brothers’ memories at the time of their incarceration serves to ontrast them to Yosef. Whereas they had failed to listen to him in the past, Yosef was now listening to them. Indeed, Yosef’s ability to listen had driven his success. Consider the art of interpreting dreams: The interpreter must listen intently to the vision, pay attention to its various details and notice the nuanced descriptions of the teller. Then – and only then – can an interpretation be rendered. Yosef found success in the very realm that his brothers had neglected.

Learning from the story of Yosef’s brothers in the dungeon, we must always remember the importance of listening.

Shabbat shalom!

Rabbi Avi Harari

[1] Carl R. Rogers, A Way of Being (New York, NY, 1995), pg. 8-10.
[2] Viktor E. Frankl, Recollections: An Autobiography (New York, NY, 2000), pg. 128-9.
[3] R. Yaakov Moshe Harlap, Mei Marom – Ori VeYish’i (Jerusalem, IS, 5729), as cited in R. Haim Sabato’s Rest for the Dove: Reading for Shabbat (New Milford, CT, 2000), pg. 99.
[4] R. Mordekhai Sabato, Petah Devarekha vol. 1 (Bet El, IS, 2015), pg. 29-30.