Friday, October 7, 2011

Kol Nidrei 5772 - Listen Up!

There is a peculiar thing that happens to me when I listen to the shofar being blown on Rosh Hashanah and at the end of Yom Kippur.  I am transported to somewhere else, to a different place and time, where I have perfect clarity, where the teqi’ah gedolah makes my soul transparent.  There is something so moving, so meaningful in the sound of the shofar that it simply opens me up.

This day, Yom Kippur, is a day about listening.  Listening to the words and melodies of prayer, yes, and perhaps to the words of a sermon, but most importantly, about listening to yourself, to your soul.  Listening, I think, is becoming a lost art, a technique that fewer and fewer of us are employing.

I remember seeing years ago a cartoon in the Big Book of Jewish Humor, which I received as a bar mitzvah gift.  (Do kids still get books for their benei mitzvah?)  It was, I think, originally from the New Yorker.  

In one frame, there is a bartender talking to a man who looks miserable, saying “Another drink?  All this drinking is not so good for your health.”  In the second frame, a psychoanalyst is talking to the same miserable man, who is lying on the traditional couch.  The analyst is saying, “So I says to meself, Paddy, I says...”  The caption of the cartoon is, “The Unhappiest Man in New York.  He has a Jewish bartender and an Irish shrink.”

I find that my work as a rabbi requires more listening than speaking; sometimes people who come to me for help just need to be heard.

I grew up in a traditional Jewish home, in the sense that we always had Shabbat dinner together, we almost always went to the synagogue on Saturday morning (it was 20 miles away, so we had to drive), and we kept kosher at home, and most of the time outside as well.  We didn’t really consider ourselves “religious,” although that term, I suppose is one that we generally apply to anyone who is more observant than we are.  Perhaps you know the well-worn Jewish principle: anyone more “religious” than you is a crazy zealot; anyone less is a heretic.  Well, we were exactly in the right place on that scale.  

I heard many sermons growing up, most of them by Rabbi Arthur Rulnick at Congregation Knesset Israel in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.  Truth is, I remember very few of them, but not because they were not great sermons.  The reason I don’t remember them is because I was not listening.  

In fact, I actually remember when I started listening to my rabbi: I was a graduate student in my early 20s at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas.  I’m not sure why I suddenly opened up to the ideas that made Judaism appealing, but it was almost as if somebody had flicked a switch to turn on my attention.  Part of my prior disinterest might have been that I had grown up in a Jewish home environment; when I first left home, I was an undergrad at Cornell, which at the time was perhaps 20% Jewish.  I had been continually exposed to Judaism.

In graduate school, however, I found myself in a part of the country where it was far easier to find people who thought Jews had horns than it was to actually find another Jew.  There, in the buckle of the Bible Belt, on a campus of 40,000 students with only about 400 Jews, for the first time I had the need to identify with my people, and to learn about why I was Jewish, why it mattered to me, and what on Earth was I doing in the middle of Texas, surrounded by large, cowboy-hat-wearin’, tobacco-chewin’, gun-totin’ gentiles?


If you were asked to identify the one line of Jewish prayer that is the most central, the most well-known, what would it be?

There is no question that it is the opening line of the Shema.

Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai ehad.
Listen up, O Israel, YHWH is your God, YHWH alone.

It’s so important, that we say it no less than four times during a Shabbat morning service, just to make sure that those who leave early or arrive late hear it.  It is so well-known that, like the sound of the shofar, when I hear a room full of Jews singing the Shema together, I can’t not be moved.  

There are many messages that you might glean from that line.  Of primary importance, of course, is the message about God.  But the second principle of Shema is that God wants us to listen.  That listening is a central act in Jewish life, and that listening brings about change in our lives.

You have probably heard Judaism described as a religious tradition primarily concerned with action, rather than being primarily concerned with belief.  This is often used to distinguish Judaism from Christianity, although it might also serve to differentiate us from Islam as well, since the first of the Five Pillars of Islam is a statement of belief.  

It is true that Judaism teaches us that God is more concerned with what we do than with what we think.  

Perhaps the most concise statement of action as the hallmark of living Jewishly is the affirmation by the Israelites at the foot of Mt. Sinai, upon receiving the Torah: “Na’aseh venishma,” we will do and we will listen.  Yes, the doing comes first.  But we also need the why, the reasoning, because doing for the sake of doing can only sustain itself for so long.  (Why “doing” comes before “listening” in this instance is a topic for a separate sermon.)

This is the essential statement of Judaism.  We do, and we listen.  Sometimes we do BECAUSE we listen.

It is incumbent upon all of us to listen - to seek wisdom and understanding from others.  We are transformed by listening.

And this goes far beyond Judaism itself.  Ladies and gentlemen, I want to propose the following: that we need to listen more.  Period.

There is not enough listening going on in this world.  It is just too easy nowadays to tune everything else out.  Think about this for a moment: the way that we conduct our lives and our business nowadays is so scattered, so disjointed, and we are constantly interrupted by our cell phones, text messages, email, Facebook and Twitter updates.  And then of course there is the whole array of personal entertainment distractions available to us, which frequently prevent us from hearing anything over the barrage of music, videos, and whatever else - the mp3 players, smartphones, and so forth.

What can we possibly hear over this din?  What is there that we might listen to, if we could hear it?  And why should we bother?

Here are just a few of the things to which we are not listening:

On a national and international level, many voices are being drowned out:  

Consider American politics:  Fewer people on the right and left listen to each other any more.  We are becoming so entrenched in our opinions that we regularly dig in our heels and dismiss those who disagree with us, often by name-calling.  We seek out sources of information (radio, newspapers, websites, television, etc.) that only reinforce our narrow viewpoints and we rarely get exposed to competing narratives.  Demagoguery is flourishing.

Consider Israel.  Vast swaths of the world have tuned out Israel’s story, because it has been eclipsed by the victimhood of the Palestinian people.  Up until this week, Israeli officials could not even change planes in London, for fear that they might be hauled into a British court and tried for “war crimes.” (The Parliament just changed the law.)

Academic and artistic boycotts around the world ignore the valuable contributions that Israelis have made and continue to make to the world.  neighbors kill thousands in putting down uprisings, and yet Israel is singled out for “racism” by non-governmental organizations.  Meanwhile, another Israeli, Dan Schechtman, won a Nobel prize this week, the 10th garnered by an Israeli, and the 4th in chemistry.  

On the personal level, however, not listening to each other is just as rampant.  

How many families eat dinner together every night?  What with the combination of team sports and other extracurricular activities and busy parent work schedules, that figure is surprisingly low - roughly one quarter of American families.  Another quarter have dinner together three or fewer nights per week.  

I probably don’t need to tell you this, but time spent together with family, time spent listening to each other, is invaluable.  You can’t buy that at any price, and yet it pays off in so many ways: studies have shown that the more frequently families dine together, the more children benefit from better nutrition, better grades, and a lesser likelihood of engaging in destructive behaviors like drug and alcohol abuse and eating disorders.  This is the result not only of eating better food together, but also of talking and listening.

How many of us put our electronic devices away during dinner?  How many of us choose not to answer the phone or respond to other electronic stimuli during mealtimes?

How many of us gradually tune out our spouses?  Do we try to understand our partner’s position, do we try to listen with compassion and empathy, or do we politely or perhaps impolitely wait for our turn to talk?

Most of you know that I spent last year as the interim director of the Youth House.  One thing I observed over the last year is how hard it is to get our children’s attention - to learn, to participate, to think about something other than themselves.  This worries me greatly - I am concerned that we might be raising a generation who are losing the ability to listen.

Maybe you remember that I spoke last Yom Kippur about Shabbat, about turning off?  That’s just the first step toward listening.  You have the opportunity to try again tonight and tomorrow, on this day of listening.  Over the course of the next 24 hours, try to listen a little more - to your own words of the words of tefillah / prayer, to your family members, to God.  Try to tune out the noise.

There is a story found in the book of First Kings, when Eliyahu HaNavi (the prophet Elijah) is instructed by God to stand on a mountain and watch as God passes by.

First comes a strong wind that tears up the mountains, breaking rocks.  But God is not in the wind.

Then comes an earthquake, and God is not in that.  Then a fire, and God is also not there.

And after the fire, a qol demamah daqqah, a still, small voice.  

And so it is for us.  We can be distracted by loud noises and big spectacle, and our lives are filled with these things.  But if we really want to find God, and most of us do in one way or another, we have to ignore all that other stuff and focus on the qol demamah daqqah, the still small voice.

We need to find that voice - not only God’s, but the voices of all of the people in our lives.  The power of change is not in the wind or the earthquake or the fire.


There was once a Jew who made his living telling stories, traveling all over Poland and sharing his stories with anybody who would listen.  

One day he met the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, who took him on as a student.  “Watch very closely what I do and who comes to see me,” said the Baal Shem Tov.  “Then you will have enough tales to tell for the rest of your life.  And who knows, you too might one day through your stories relieve somebody of great suffering and pain.”  The storyteller stayed with the Besht for six months, listening intently, and then went on his way, full of stories.

Some time later, he finds himself at an inn in the Polish countryside, where nobody wants to listen to his stories.  “Listen,” says the innkeeper.  “Not far from hear, there is a Polish nobleman who loves to hear stories.  He will pay you for every story that you tell that he has never heard before.”

The storyteller leaves the inn, trudges through the snowy winter night to find the castle.  He is brought to the nobleman, who sits at the end of a long table, stone-faced, disinterested.  The storyteller begins to talk.  Every now and then, when he hears a tale he has not heard, the nobleman pushes a kopeck across the table.  

The storyteller talks and talks, telling every story he has ever heard.  And then he’s done.  He has run out.  He gets up to go.  The nobleman looks up and says, “Is that all?”

“Well, there is one more.  While I was staying with the Baal Shem Tov, a man once came to him, very upset.  ‘Master of the Good Name,’ he said, I was once a Jew, but the outside world beckoned me - its knowledge, material possessions, culture.  To partake of all of that, I converted to Christianity.  Now I am successful and rich, but also forlorn.  What should I do?’  The Besht responded, ‘Don’t worry, my son.  Just use your good fortune and knowledge to help the poor and the needy.’

“‘But,’ the man continued, ‘when will I know I have been forgiven?’

“The Besht replied, ‘You will know you are forgiven when one day you hear this story told.’”

Now the storyteller looked up, and a radiance illuminated the nobleman’s face.  Tears flowed down his cheeks as he embraced the man who had set him free.  (from Because God Loves Stories, ed. Steve Zeitlin)


The nobleman knows that he must listen, that he is waiting for the story that heralds his forgiveness and redemption.  Even though he seemed disinterested, he must have heard hundreds or perhaps thousands of stories.  It is listening to these stories, to all of these stories and not just his own, that changes him, that redeems him from his wayward life.  

Listen to the stories of others, because they have the power to change you as well.


In a little while, when Cantor Frieder chants the Selihot passages, we will repeat after him the following line, a plea to God:

Shema qoleinu, Adonai Eloheinu, hus verahem aleinu, veqabbel berahamim uvratzon et tefillateinu.  
Hear our voices, O God; have mercy on us, and accept our prayers.

We highlight this line on Yom Kippur several times, although it is part of the weekday Amidah.  We say it traditionally three times every weekday, morning, afternoon and evening.  We implore God to listen to our prayers.

Meanwhile, the Talmud teaches us that God too has a prayer (Berakhot 7a):

“May it be My will that My compassion overcome My anger and may My mercy prevail over My attributes of justice and judgment.  May I deal with My children in accordance with My attribute of compassion.  May I act towards them beyond the letter of the law.”

Let’s hope that God is listening to us, and acting according to both our prayers and God’s own.  For our part, each of us individually can fulfill our end of the bargain by listening not just for that still, small voice, but to everybody else as well.

This holy day is a day of listening.  Shema Yisrael.  Listen up, O Israel.  We change through listening, and Yom Kippur is the time of transformation.

Hatimah tovah.  May all of us be sealed in the Book of Life for a good year.

(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Friday evening, October 7, 2011.)

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