Listening, or talking? Knowing which to do and when is hard. Talking comes naturally to so many, but it’s hard to be sensitive about what to say, let alone how to say it. Similarly, listening is a real art. It’s hard to do, even harder to master.
All too often when we are in the listening role, however, it’s hard to focus on the words being spoken by the person across from us because we are already thinking about how to respond. Something said strikes a chord, or an idea reminds us of one of our own stories that we are eager to share.
Still, pausing long enough to be present, to join someone in the moment of what he or she is experiencing, requires tremendous patience, discipline and awareness. Often, the response is far less important than actually hearing the voice of another person and, in turn, hearing our own voices, too.
Our Torah portion, Vaetchanan, teaches us a valuable lesson in balancing listening with speaking. On the one hand, we have the famous words of the Shema: “Hear/Listen O’ Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One” (Deuteronomy 6:4). The Shema beseeches us to pause and focus so that we can listen to God and to ourselves as we strive to live lives of goodness and kindness inspired by following Jewish tradition.
Yet, this week’s reading also coincides with Shabbat Nachamu (“comfort”), the first Shabbat following the historical day of mourning in Jewish history, the ninth of Av. As a part of our healing from the tragedies that befell the Jewish people, including the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem, we read the famous words of the Prophet Isaiah: “Nachamu nachamu ami — Comfort, o’ comfort my people, says your God, speak tenderly to Jerusalem” (Isaiah 40:1–2). While the Shema implores us to listen, to pay attention and concentrate on our behavior, the Prophet Isaiah demonstrates how God offers comfort to the Israelites through spoken language. So … when to speak and to listen — that is the question.
Psychotherapist and Jewish mystic Estelle Frankel writes: “The role of silence in fostering spiritual awakening is a central theme in biblical narrative, as reflected in the fact that the Torah was revealed in the desert, a place of silence and emptiness… One cannot acquire Torah (wisdom) unless one becomes ownerless/nonattached (hefker) like the desert” (“Sacred Therapy: Jewish Spiritual Teachings on Emotional Healing and Inner Wholeness,” 90-91).
For Frankel, it is through silence that the divine call is heard (Shema) at Sinai and thus becomes available to each of us. Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib (S’fat Emet, 19th-century Poland) teaches, “Hearing requires being empty of everything. To transcend our current state of spiritual exile, we must forget this world’s vanities so that we empty the heart to [listen] to God’s word without any distracting thoughts.”
Herein lies the intersection between hearing and speaking. To be able to respond to others, we must be able to open ourselves up to really hear what that person is saying and seeking.
Frankel offers one additional piece of guidance. Spiritual surrender, deciding when to speak and when to listen, “does not mean that we give up our power to heal ourselves [or others]. Rather, it implies an attitude of patience and acceptance … It involves a stance of listening and attunement … enabling us to perceive how godliness and a sense of meaning may be found in the very place where we stand — no matter how difficult our situation, [no matter how we respond]. And when we surrender in this fashion to how things are right now, we feel a sense of peace and at-one-ment. Out of this state, paradoxically, spontaneous healings frequently emerge.”
Parashat Vaetchanan and Shabbat Nachamu serve as reminders that the unspoken word is just as powerful as the spoken one. In practicing our listening skills, we can actually convey an incredible message to someone else by being present with them or, as Frankel puts it, being “in-tune” with someone in a time of need.
The words we offer in life’s most meaningful and challenging moments can be a tremendous source of comfort to someone. At the same time, knowing when not to speak and, instead, to open our ears and our hearts to one another may provide even more comfort than we ever thought possible.
Rabbi Corey Helfand is the spiritual leader of Conservative Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.