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The Art of Listening: Rabbi Grimberg's Rosh Hashanah Sermon, October 3, 2016

19/10/2016 05:41:05 PM


Rosh Hashanah 5777

Day I



The Art of Listening: The New Year’s Gift

It is this stirring, wild, ancient sound that makes us tremble. It is this sound that we come here to hear. It is this call that our children remember as their earliest memories. Sounded 100 times during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It is a shofar call: chilling, challenging, inviting as it rips through the year.

It is the sound that is meant to awaken us. It is the sound that makes us look inside of ourselves and see others around us.

According to our tradition, it is the only Mitzvah, a holy obligation, that one must observe on Rosh Hashanah. The remainder of what we do is an embellishment on that theme. The call of the Shofar is placed in the Shaharit service, it is followed by a festive meal, it is sweetened by honey and apples, new clothes, phone calls and messages, but at the core it is about listening and hearing the call of the shofar.

I want to explore with you today the gift and challenge of listening and of being heard. Listening and being heard is a door that opens up to a human face.

Our tradition, our wise tradition from early on, developed into an obsession with listening and being heard.

In the book of Deuteronomy, Dvarim the word Shema is mentioned in a various forms at least 90 times. “It shall be that if you hear the voice of God…..All these blessings will come to you. …..If you hear the mitzvoth I am asking you to do…speaks the Holy One.” Deut. ch 28:1, Ch 28:13

A practice of reciting Shema upon awaking and before falling asleep is the way a Jew begins and ends their day. They are the words we recite before we close our eyes – before our final sleep.

King Solomon was considered the wisest man ever lived. After the death of his father, King David, Solomon steps onto the throne as a young man, inexperienced. He has a dream and in the dream God appears and says “What shall I grant you?...” Solomon responds, “grant me an ‘understanding mind’ or figuratively translated, ‘give me a wise heart,’ but the actual Hebrew says lev shomei,  which means ‘Listening Heart.’…

“God was pleased that Solomon had asked for this …I grant you a wise and discerning mind to dispense justice...” Lishmoah Mishpat. (hearing Justice) Kings I. ch3: 9-11

For Solomon, the key to leadership with wisdom is a listening heart. 

The choice of words is significant. Solomon’s wisdom lay, at least in part, in his ability to listen, to hear the emotion behind the words, to sense what was being left unsaid as well as what was said.

Rabbi Jonathon Sacks: “Listening matters in a moral environment… The very act of listening is a form of respect.”

Our Machzor is permeated by the concept of hearing and listening as a major theme on Rosh Hashanah: Shema Koleinu: We want to hear God’s voice and we want God to hear our voice.

שמע קולינו יהוה אלוהינו, חוס ורחם עלינו, וקבל ברחמים וברצון את תפילתינו. Shema koleinu adonai eloheinu, chus verachem aleinu, vekabel berachamin uvratzon et tefilateinu. Hear our voice, O Lord our God; spare us and have mercy upon us, and accept our prayer in mercy and favor. - From the daily Amidah, also features in the High Holiday service.

Sigmund Freund, the father of psychoanalysis, was estranged from traditional Judaism and called psychoanalysis the “speaking cure”, but it is better described as the “listening cure.” It is based on the fact that active listening is in itself therapeutic. It was only after the spread of psychoanalysis, especially in North America, that the phrase “I hear you” came into the English language as a way of communicating empathy.

The ability to hear and share someone’s concerns and pains can change the course of their life. However, the inability to hear can also change the course of someone’s life.

The master of authentic and profound communication is a theologian Martin Buber. He was a 20th century German scholar, philosopher, theologian and Zionist. His work on Hassidism opened the door to understanding and scholarship of the lore and wisdom of our great-grandparents. He is also well known for his major work “I and Thou,”  a classic philosophic work on the importance of dialogue and communication.

Martin Buber had and still has a profound influence on Jewish and non-Jewish circles. He was born in the end of the 19th century in Germany and became a philosophy professor at the early age, but he lost his position with the arrival of the Nazis in the 1930s. A passionate Zionist, he moved to Palestine where he taught and wrote.

There is a poignant story about Martin Buber and his epiphany and evolution as a scholar and a thinker.

Early in his scholarly career, Buber, who loved solitude, was learning and hard at work editing a mystical text when his doorbell rang…

An anxious and distraught young man asked if he could speak with Buber. Buber invited the man inside and answered the questions the young man asked. But, as he later confided, Buber was anxious to return to his work, and in his words: “I didn’t try to answer the questions he didn’t ask.”

A short time later, Buber learned that the man had apparently committed suicide.

“Later…not long after, I learned from one of his friends that he had come to see me not casually, but borne by destiny; not for a chat but for a decision.”

The meeting’s unhappy aftermath changed Buber forever. He felt he did not really see or hear the student who came to see him, even though he was physically present. From then on, he concluded, encounters with people must take precedence over scholarship and mystical speculation.

Dramatic listening changed Buber‘s world, his philosophy of life and sent him on a course of exploration. This led to the exploration of the “I and Thou Relationship” and the “I and It Relationship.”

Buber distinguishes two basic forms of relationships, the “I and Thou” and the “I and It,” into which all human’s relations can be divided, both with other people and with things in the world.

The I-Thou relationship is characterized by mutuality, openness, directness, and presentness; listening and seeing each other.

The I-It relationship is characterized by the absence of these qualities. The I-Thou is a true dialogue where both partners speak to each other as equals. The I-It relationship is not of equals. It is the relationship where one of the partners uses the other to achieve some end. It is not necessarily hurtful, but it is missing some depth. For example: A conversation with a woman in the grocery store regarding my broccoli. “Is it fresh, was it brought in this morning” it I-It, but if the conversation becomes more personal and she begins to describe how to prepare broccoli the way her grandmother used to… this conversation demands of me to shift from and I-It to I-Thou.  It is impossible to sustain I-Thou relationships all the time. We crave I-Thou because this is how we create meaningful relationships. The reason I-Thou feels so special is because when we fall in love or share time with our children or close friends in a meaningful way, we are open and present and we hear and see them.


Responsibility of being heard: Can one be heard at any time…?

According to the rabbi: “No”.  There is an appropriate time and inappropriate to talk to someone about things that are important, especially if these are words of constructive criticism.  The timing is everything.  To share an example:  Jacob, father of 12 tribes addressing his sons. They are gathered by his bedside. He is ill and dying. The honesty is striking and his clarity is incredible. The patriarch blesses each son and points out to each one of them their areas of challenge. They are paying full attention.  His choice of time is impeccable.  No one is going to argue with a dying man and every word is precious.  Jacob delivers a clear assessment of his children; their attention is present.

You can tell a lot about a person by the way she or he listens. You can tell a lot about a couple by the way they hear or don’t hear each other. 

We fall in love based on physical attraction: looks are a major component in this equation. But we stay in love based on communication. Listening and hearing can be a profoundly religious experience, but the skill is something one has to learn. It does not necessarily come naturally. Therefore, may I suggest a few rules I often break myself:

  • Pay attention: Put away your devices…, turn your television off.
  • Show you are listening: face your partner, child, colleague or employee…
  • Don’t rush with your own story: Wait till I tell you what happened to me…avoid narcissistic listening.
  • Defer judgement: Be careful… “We never know what it is like to be someone else,” says Nachman of Bratslav.  

Listening is a profoundly vulnerable experience: “If you really hear someone carefully, you might change your mind,” from “Mind Tools Active Listening”

One of my Hartman teachers, Noam Zion, with whom many of you are familiar, studied with me in preparation for this morning and shared with me that his father shared some correspondence with Martin Buber.  Noam forwarded the letter to me. I found it to be a treasure. Noam allowed me to share it with you. As a young rabbinical student. Noam’s father was deeply influenced by Buber’s philosophy and teaching.

In 1955, Noam’s father writes to Martin Buber:

Dear Professor Buber, What were the great books and who were the great thinkers of the world who left their imprint on your style of thinking? - Rabbi Moshe Sachs

 Dear Rabbi Sachs-­

I have been ill for months.. but I want you to know that, with the exception of the Bible, some Hasidic literature etc. I have not been very much influenced by books. Of course, I have read many books, and nearly all the books impress… but what moves me to the depths and influences me are rather living persons, meeting them, communicating with their life…

I knew nothing of books when I came forth from the womb of my mother and I shall die without books with another human hand in my own. I do indeed close my door at times and surrender myself to a book but only because I can open the door and see a human face looking at me.”

Sincerely yours,

Martin Buber, March 22 1955

This Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we will hear the sound of shofar close to 100 times. It is the sound that is meant to awaken us. It is the sound that makes us look inside of ourselves and see those around us. It is the sound that asks us to open a door and see and hear God in a human face.

Tue, 3 August 2021 25 Av 5781