Hearing another means really listening

By Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel

Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel

Once a judge was interviewing a woman regarding her pending divorce, and asked, “What are the grounds for your divorce?” She replied, “About four acres and a nice little home in the middle of the property with a stream running by.” “No,” he said, “I mean what is the foundation of this case?” “It is made of concrete, brick and mortar,” she responded.
 
“I mean,” he continued, “What are your relations like?” “I have an aunt and uncle living here in town, and so do my husband’s parents.”
He said, “Do you have a real grudge?” “No,” she replied, “We have a two-car carport and have never really needed one.”
 
“Please,” he tried again, “is there any infidelity in your marriage?” “Yes, both my son and daughter have hi-fidelity stereo sets. We don’t necessarily like the music, but the answer to your questions is yes.”
 
“Ma’am, does your husband ever beat you up?” “Yes,” she responded, “about twice a week he gets up earlier than I do.” Finally, in frustration, the judge asked, “Lady, why do you want a divorce?” “Oh, I don’t want a divorce,” she replied. “I’ve never wanted a divorce. My husband does. He said he can’t communicate with me!”
 
One of the greatest gifts we give to one another is the gift of listening. Nothing hurts us more than the sense that the people we care about aren’t really listening to us when we wish to say something. We never outgrow the need to have our feelings known. This truth may help us understand why a sympathetic ear is such a powerful force in human relationships—and why the failure to be understood is so painful. Indeed, many relationships end because each partner fails to be emotionally present to the Other.
 
When a man whose marriage was in trouble sought his advice, the Sufi Master said, “You must learn to listen to your wife.” The man took this advice to heart and returned after a month to say he had learned to listen to every word his wife was saying. The Master with a smile, “Now go home and listen to every word she isn’t saying.”
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LISTENING TO WHAT IS NOT BEING SAID
Listening seems to be such an important part of the Rosh Hashanah holiday. In our prayers, we try to listen to God and “the still small voice” in the solitude of our souls. I think the problems of much of our world could be partially solved if we took one step back to listen to what people who think or feel differently have to say.

A few days ago illustrates this point better than any university classroom, where diversity of opinion is often squashed.
 
AN UNEXPECTED EPIPHANY
 
Last Saturday, Washington D.C. featured a Trump rally, pegged by many as the “Mother of All Rallies. The Black Lives Matter supporters decided to counter with a rally against bigotry and police violence against young blacks. While each side was doing their best to ignore the Other, a black Trump supporter named Henry Davis had a sudden inspiration.
 
Spontaneously, he decided to invite the BLM activists to join him, but he quickly changed his mind. He made the following challenge:  “So you guys know that the ‘Mother of All Rallies’ was to end the political violence,” he told the BLM group. “It’s about freedom of speech. It’s about celebration.
 
“So what we’re going to do is something you’re not used to, and we’re going to give you two minutes of our platform to put your message out. Whether they disagree or agree with your message is irrelevant. It’s the fact that you have the right to have the message. “It’s your right to say what you believe,” Davis told the group. “And it’s their right [referring to the pro-Trump crowd] to let you know what they think about what you’re saying.”
 
Then he handed the microphone to Hawk Newsome, president of Black Lives Matter of Greater New York. Newsome told the crowd, “I am an American,” eliciting cheers and applause.  “And the beauty of America is that when you see something broke in your country, you can mobilize to fix it.
 
“So you ask why there’s a Black Lives Matter,” Newsome continued. “Because you can watch a black man die and be choked to death on television and nothing happens. We need to address that.” To be sure, the crowd wasn’t willing to accept all of Newsome’s speech. At times they booed him and yelled out “BS” and “All lives matter!”
 
But there were moments when the crowd accepted the black rights activist’s message. When Newsome said he was a Christian and was taught to “Love thy neighbor,” the crowd cheered. And the crowd responded with a mix of cheers and groans when Newsome proclaimed he was not “anti-cop.” “We are anti-bad cop,” he said. “We say if a cop is bad, he needs to get fired like a bad plumber, a bad lawyer, like a bad f…g politician!”
 
When Newsome said “All lives matter, right? But when a black life is lost, we get no justice,” some people called him a liar. Newsome’s speech did end with a message of unity: “If we really want America great, then we do it together.”
 
At that moment, everyone cheered.
 
In that special exchange, conservative Trumspters and BLM found common ground. After the speech, journalists wanted to know what the BLM leader had to say. Newsome said the moment the Trumpsters “restored my faith in some of those people,” by allowing let him speak. “I feel like we made progress. Two sides that never listen to each other actually made progress today,” he said. “If not on a grander level, but just person to person, I think we really made some substantial steps without either side yielding anything.”
 
All this takes us back to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Relationships often get frayed and unraveled because in relationships we fail to listen to each other.
 
The great 20th century Jewish philosopher Martin Buber developed an entire ethical philosophy of Judaism known as the “I and Thou.” According to Buber the magic of interpersonal transformation occurs in the moment of what he calls “The Between” where each party turns toward the other and enters into an undivided relationship.
 
This is where true communication and community emerges from a relationship. Often in my years of doing marital counseling, one of the first rules of engagement is to have a struggling couple to really listen to one another.
 
True listening is a listening of soul. It involves making eye contact. If involves respecting the other person’s space; it involves a willingness to listen. Authentic listening requires that we not judge, or pre-judge. It is in those moments of actual authentic meeting, healing can often occur because nobody wants to feel as if they are a non-entity and unimportant. These are but a few of the challenges Rosh Hashanah encourages us to travel along the road less traveled, and boldly go where we have never gone before.

If our communities can learn to teach the respect of “The Between” as Buber advocated, then not only will our own personal lives, relationships, and friendships improve—but so will our communities and maybe our country.
 
This is every bit a spiritual challenge—one which will allow us to consciously feel as though God is speaking to us and through us as we focus on healing ourselves and our world.

The Chinese say, “The journey of a 1000 miles begins with the first step,” and today on Rosh Hashanah, you have already taken that first step. But we need to continue the next steps as we make our spiritual journey
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