Rabbi Lucy HF Dinner
It is good to be back worshipping at Pullen and to have your Senior Pastor, the most Reverend Nancy Petty speaking from my pulpit at Temple Beth Or this coming Friday night. A long time Temple member recently asked me how far back the relationship between Temple Beth Or and Pullen goes. I know the answer predates my 18 years at Temple by decades. And it even predates the renowned friendship between wonderful partners and music connoisseurs Gerry Cate from Pullen and Nell Hirschberg from Temple. In so many ways Temple Beth Or and Pullen are like that old Fogleberg song: “Twin Sons of Different Mothers.” Or, perhaps better stated given the current leadership of our congregations’ twin daughters. What unites us is that theologically and philosophically we pursue a specific vision of humanity treating one another with respect and dignity. It is a privilege to reunite with you, and to worship and celebrate all that we might be.
And, so, I greet you with an ancient Jewish call.
The Tekiah: Shofar is Blown
The sound of the shofar, shrill, raw, & penetrating, punctuates the current Jewish month of Elul that culminates with a chorus of 100 shofar calls on the Jewish New Year Rosh HaShanah. Why the shofar, or rams horn? I could give you the biblical citation of the commandment to hear the shofar. I could offer Eleventh Century Rabbi Moses Maimonides’ lesson on the ten meanings of the shofar blast. Instead, I want to focus on something more basic: the sound itself, and its associated visceral reaction.
You don’t have to be Jewish to know that feeling of rapt attention the blast of the shofar demands. It is certainly an unfamiliar sound in our world of customized cell phone rings, blackberry beeps, automobile rumbles (or purrs for those driving the hybrids), and that never-ending 24-hour news cycle broadcasting wherever one ventures, even at your local gas pump. Our lives are overflowing with noise. This week we learned, as if we needed a study to reveal this startling fact, that the earbuds, those dangling attachments to any “properly” outfitted youth, are causing permanent hearing loss to teens.
Our world is full of NOISE, so much noise that the sounds meld together into one continuous blare. We hear the buzz non-stop, but most of what we hear melts into that obsequious, white noise of existence. The sound of the Shofar, even in the midst of the non-stop buzz of our day, or perhaps especially in the midst of the reign of noise that sycophantically assaults our senses, that discordant call awakens a deep, primal, return. It is richly raw, natural, and fresh, and surprisingly real.
I. What happened to our ability to Listen?
The reverberation of the Shofar begs us to return to an art that has all but been lost in this screaming world of ours: the art of listening. We, who have become experts in hearing with our state of the art woofers, our surround sound home theaters, and custom bells and whistles, hear but do not know how to listen.
- We hear our co-workers’ demands that we meet deadline, and we comply; but we do not really collaborate or connect.
- We hear our friends’ tweets about what is interesting in their day, but we have no time to engage in real conversations with them.
- We hear the voice calling to take the next order at the drive-through box, but we do not give a second thought to the real person behind that voice.
- We hear the pleas of the hungry on the streets, but we do not want to know the story of the person behind those vacant eyes.
- We hear the familiar cell phone ring of our spouse, but we rarely divert our attention from the task at hand to listen for the urgency in his/her voice.
- We hear our children calling us to join them on the playground, and even if we do, the Bluetooth bleeping keeps us from really paying attention.
- We hear, we hear and hear and hear, until we become so noise fatigued, we loosen hold on our ability to listen.
The onslaught of noise in our world has brought about a revolt from the inner recesses of our souls. In defense we have simply stopped listening. In his book Divine Things, Rabbi Robert Kirshner recalls a story of a teenager’s conversation with his high school counselor:
You know what I am? (the teen said) I’m a comma. When I talk to my dad, he listens for a minute, and then he starts talking. When I try to talk, he interrupts me. Well… not always. But even when he doesn’t interrupt, he doesn’t hear me either. As soon as I’m finished, he starts right where he left off. He makes me a comma. It’s as if I didn’t say anything.” (Divine Things, p. 64).
Unfortunately, the boy’s comments ring too close to home. Even with our loved ones the familiar patterns become so well worn we do not listen. We think that we know exactly what they are going to say the instant we hear the intonation of the first syllable that comes out of their mouth. Our responses become so routinized we scantly realize that we have forsaken the ability to communicate. If we relegate our conversations with our children to commas, all the more so, the throngs of less significant people in our life fade into oblivion.
II. To be heard
And, yet, there is nothing more that we want than to be heard — for someone, anyone, to listen. The Russian writer Checkhov tells a story of a cab driver and his old horse.
They are parked on the street on a cold winter night. The driver has yet to have one fare. Both he and his horse, covered by drifting snow, appear almost like ghosts. Finally a man hails the driver and shouts his destination. After they have been traveling for a while, the driver turns to his passenger and says, “Did you know, sir, my son died this week.”
“Oh?” The passenger replies. “What did he die of?”
The driver begins to tell him, but the passenger is cold and in a rush. “Listen,” he says, “can you hurry up a bit?”
Later the driver picks up another fare, three young men. After waiting for a break in their conversation, he says to them, “My son … died this week.”
“Yes, we must all die,” one of the young men replies, resenting the intrusion and returning to his conversation.
After this fare the driver turns in for the night and returns his horse to the stable. He tries to talk about his loss with one of the other drivers. But no sooner does he begin to speak than he sees the other driver has dozed off.’
Finally the driver walks over to where his horse is standing in the stall. The driver says, “You know, old horse, my son died this week.” And he pours out his heart to the horse.” (Divine Things, p. 65).
Oh how we all long to be heard, to have someone who will just listen.
III. From the Personal to the Public
It is hard to determine whether the eradication of listening is a result of or has merely fed into the escalating, vituperative, rhetoric that has hijacked what used to be a free and open press. In desperation to capture the “American Listening Ear” everyone from pundits to politicians, accused defendants to district attorneys, and heroes to deposed celebrities, splashes their personal story across any available screen, sharing details that redefine TMI by the hour. Civil discourse has become an endangered species.
All too well we know this, as we have become victims of such rhetoric from our own local School Board. They conduct press conferences spewing defamation on their opposition. They are happy to lecture about their detractors, but steadfast in their refusal to have actual conversations. Indeed they have severely cut the opportunities for public discourse, by trimming their meeting schedule by half. The rhetoric undulates; the divide widens, all at the expense of the education of our youth.
On the other hand, have those of us in opposition been model listeners to what the School Board has to say? Though the majority on the Wake School Board is loath to give me a lectern from which I can speak to them, I haven’t been anxious to open my lectern to their views either. All of us could stand to learn from really listening to each other.
Our local news has such vivid examples, that it would be easy to ignore the even greater threats to the listening world replete nationally and internationally. Just mention the words Tea Party or Palin and many of us turn the station and turn our backs on a group of citizens who feel like their voices and their concerns have been sublimated, and the America they knew and loved is suffocating. I am not suggesting that anyone support the Tea Party, rather, that we need to understand that one thing the Tea Party is about is a segment of citizens who feel they are not being heard, and that their voice has become irrelevant to their country.
III. Listening as Witnessing
On a personal level, a political level, a national, and international level, we have forgotten how to listen to one another. The Biblical text that I bring before you today is the central proclamation of Jewish faith. What does it ask of us: “Shema Yisrael, Adonai Elohainu, Adonai Echad?” Listen, Oh Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is One.” (Deut 6:4) LISTEN,
before you speak,
before you act,
before you respond,
or even before you celebrate,
Turn off all the whistles, bells, and whirls, and listen.
In the scroll of the sacred Torah the words of this verse from Deuteronomy 6:4 are written in a peculiar way. The last letter of the first word and the last letter of the last word are enlarged. Those two letters together form the Hebrew word Eid – WITNESS. How do we bare witness? It is not the words of our mouth that lead us to witness, nor even the acts of our hands. The first task of witnessing, the key to our ability to witness in all other modes, is our willingness to LISTEN. Only when we listen can we learn how to fulfill the next part of the text from Deuteronomy: “You shall love the Lord your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and all your being.” (Deut 6:4-5) When we listen, we cultivate the heart, soul and being to love God.
We can re-activate that ancient art of listening. We can refine our listening skills, no matter how dormant they have become. We can suppress that urge to formulate a response even while the other is still speaking. We can delay that well-honed instinct to blaze into action before we have had a chance to understand the other.
Not long ago, a friend from my childhood was telling me about her child’s learning difference. When the teacher speaks, her daughter has an auditory processing delay that means that she essentially has to reprocess what she has just heard in her head before she can respond. Practically, that means that while other children are raising their hands with an answer before the teacher has finished the question, her daughter has to mull over what she has heard for ten seconds before she is able to respond. In the educational world they call this an auditory processing disability. In the words of our Bible text, we might call this forced delay a unique ability, rather than disability, the ability to really listen before one responds. This is one auditory processing ability that we can seek to emulate and achieve.
Imagine if when the Israelis and Palestinians come to Washington next week, if they agreed that active listening and witnessing to the worth of the words of the other would be their guiding principal. The world would be better served if we all could reframe our emphasis from direct “Talks” to direct “Listens.”
Listening means witnessing to the words we have heard, acknowledging their content, and understanding their intent. And it means doing this before we jump up to retort, before we blaze forward in reaction. In Isaiah 43:10 we are instructed in what God asks of us as witnesses: “You are My witnesses, says the LORD, and My servant … that you may know … Me, and understand that I am God.” When we are true witnesses before God, and before the words of our fellows, we listen to their words until we know them and understand them.
The Sages of old commented on this verse from Isaiah interpreting its essence. They said, “When you are my witness, I am God. And, when you are not my witness, it is as if I am not God.”
Let each of us be a witness: “Listen, the Lord is God the Lord is One.” As we listen, then and only then can we fulfill the rest of that original text: “You shall love the Lord your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your being.”