Learning to Listen
A Message for Parashat BeHukotai 2017
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Most of Parashat Behukotai exists as a presentation of the tokhehah – the doom and punishment that await Am Yisrael if they stray from the path of God. These ominous conditions are twice preceded by a brief description of Am Yisrael’s potential rebellion:
And if you will not listen to Me… (26:14)
And if in all this you will not listen to Me… (26:27)
R. Norman Lamm noted that the word “shemi’ah,” or “listening,” is a homonym. Depending on the context, it can mean either a literal sensory experience or the more figurative expression of obeying an order or will. He explained that the two meanings in fact dovetail with one another, as the primary cause of disobedience is faulty listening. When God warned the nation about disobedience he was cautioning them about the necessity of to listen properly, as well.
Seth Horowitz, an auditory neuroscientist, distinguished between the sense of hearing and the skill of listening. He explained that hearing has evolved as our alarm system, operating out of the line of sight, and working even while we are asleep. Listening, in contrast, is the intricate application of attention to the auditory sense. In our world of digital distraction and information overload there exists the acute risk of losing the skill of listening. Horowitz warned:
…And yet we dare not lose it. Because listening tunes our brain to the patterns of our environment faster than any other sense, and paying attention to the nonvisual parts of our world feeds into everything from our intellectual sharpness to our dance skills.
Our individual success in every realm of life is crucially dependent upon our ability to cultivate the skill of listening.
The best-selling author Greg Mckeown described how the journalist Thomas Friedman once ate lunch together with sources for a column that he was writing and someone at the table accused him of not paying attention to the banter at the table. Friedman, however, defended himself by explaining that he was in fact listening, but it was in a unique and deliberate fashion. He was carefully filtering out everything other than the matters that grabbed his attention and seemed most essential. Mckeown explained that by doing so, Friedman was able to discern the important details and facts that were not explicitly spoken and would have otherwise been overlooked.
Michael Taft, the author of The Mindful Geek, explained that the first step to learning how to listen is discovering how to be quiet. Instead of focusing on the words and thoughts of the other person during our conversations, our mind capacity is generally spent pondering our own response. He suggested that we wait one full second before responding to a comment while talking with another person. That second of silence should be spent paying proper attention to what the other person has said. Taft explained that because humans love to be heard, the speaker will begin to say things and respond in ways that are very positive, while you will feel yourself opening to the person in a new way. Proper performance of this simple task has the potential to transform a dysfunctional conversation into one of thoughtful engagement and dialogue.
The influential British psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion once spoke about the importance of “silence” to his practice. He explained that silence can sometimes become “a valuable communication,” likening it to the necessary rests and pauses in music and holes and gaps in sculpture. Carl Rogers similarly wrote about “hearing deeply,” which he defined as “hearing the words, the thoughts, the feeling tones, the personal meaning, and even the meaning that is below the conscious intent of the speaker.” Rogers wrote that hearing others had enriched his life, explaining: “It is through hearing people that I have learned all that I know about individuals, about personality, about interpersonal relationships.”
Summarizing his central thesis, Seth Horowitz wrote, “The richness of life doesn’t lie in the loudness and the beat, but in the timbres and the variations that you can discern if you simply pay attention.” Parashat Behukotai reminds us about the importance of “listening to God.” It teaches that just as our success in dealing with people and navigating the various challenges of life depends upon our skill of listening, so too does our relationship with God.
We must extend beyond simply “hearing” the words of the Torah and attentively listen to them. Instead of viewing the missvot ha-Torah as mere rules and demands to dutifully obey, we must listen for the penetrating “voice of God” as it calls for their performance. The model of “a single second of silence” must exist in developing our relationship with God, as well. It is the need for us to pay attention to His words, to let them resonate, and to properly understand them. It is the need to listen.